Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes

Have you ever been in such physical pain that it gave others a bad impression of you? If so, you’re definitely not alone in this reaction. I’ve been there, too.

As you might imagine, in my job as a hospice chaplain I work hard to present an open-hearted persona. Normally when I enter a home, I offer a hand of greeting along with a sympathetic touch on the shoulder.

However, these days a sprain of my right-hand Baylor ring finger may be causing people to see me in a less friendly light. While I remain my affable self, I’m under doctor’s orders to refrain from the grip-and-grins of the church coffee hour or the shake-and-bake of the summer picnic.

Unfortunately, without a splint, I appear pain-free and people reach for a quick handshake. My only choice seems to wince and bear it.

I know my pain is insignificant compared to the chronic issues some live with, but my temporary circumstance amply illustrates how easily people can overlook the hidden pain of others. When you overlook their pain, you tend to dismiss people as simply standoffish or irritable.

Recently, I noticed a retired police officer in my church to whom I was having a hard time relating. For some reason it felt like he was distant or hard to know. This past week I approached him again and vowed to listen more closely for his hidden pain.

The conversation started with mutual talk about our retirements. With complimentary intentions I mentioned that he seemed too young for retirement.

“Medically retired with a bad back,” came his brief and deadpan reply.

The English language coins “back pain” as a compound word because it’s such a common occurrence. But unless we see a person hunched over we don’t know how much pain can bend their personality.

Almost as an afterthought, I asked the officer if he lived with much pain.

“Constantly,” he said. “I don’t believe in taking pain meds.”

At that moment his truer self came into sharper focus. He was someone who’d sacrificed much in his honorable service for his community. His intensity didn’t make him insensitive, rather, he was more in tune with life’s pain than I’d given him credit. His pain was concealed, but my knowledge of his pain gave me a new depth of understanding.

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The encounter has given me reason to work harder when I meet someone who seems detached or unsociable. I need to not judge them but to keep an open mind as to how pain can significantly alter someone’s behavior. Given such understanding, I pray it becomes easier to accept our loved ones and ourselves as we are.

Finally, since my doctor told me that a sprained finger can hurt for months, I decided to tell the guys at church why I couldn’t shake hands.

“That’s OK," said the retired police officer. “I hope it gets better.” He reached over to give me an encouraging slap on my left shoulder.

I winced.

“Shoulder pain too?” he asked.

“Doctor thinks it’s arthritis.” I said. “He’s told me to try some ice.”

Hopefully no one will think I’m giving them the cold shoulder.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, Calif., 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.