Finding the value in pausing and listening, understanding that there is always more than what meets the eye
When I know something, I know half.
When I am absolutely sure I know, I know less than half.
These are words I heard from teacher and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, in Washington D.C. a number of years ago. They are words I often run through my mind as I hear people talk, whenever that may be. You and I seem to live in a time where answers are more important than the questions. We all too often want a “quick fix” for our ponderings. Yet in reality, there are few answers, and often many more questions that arise. This seems to be true in science, sports, medicine, even in religion. And it’s something that has hit me time and time again throughout my life.
Before going any further, I feel it important to say something about who I am and how I have come to think about what I am writing. “I grew up in the south,” I tell folks here in East Tennessee, “southern California.” They often laugh or correct me. My thinking of what I do has been influenced by where I grew up and the family I grew up in, just as it does each of you.
My grandfathers came to the U.S. as immigrants—Grandpa Doebler from Germany, Grandpa Eisenheiss from Russia (Odessa). Both became businessmen—one with cattle and pigs, the other in construction (a carpenter)—and their adventuresome spirits are what brought them to the U.S. Who I am has something to do with those roots, and that adventurous spirit I inherited has something to do with how I think and feel. It has somehow led me to move around from California to Washington State to Iowa to Washington, D.C. to eventually Knoxville, Tennessee.
After an internship at San Quentin Prison in California, and two years as a pastor in a “rural slum” parish in Dubuque, Iowa, I spent 21 years working in mental hospitals across the country. I struggled to know why these men in prison had done what they had done. Some were the smartest and most gifted people I have met. In my thinking then, I thought the answer had to be psychological or psychiatric.
This brings me back to the quote I began with. My adventurous spirit has taken me all over the country, but in each stop I grappled with things not always being what they appeared. I needed to dive deeper and give that adventure-seeking a rest in order to focus on what was right in front me. And I’m glad I did because it opened my eyes to so much more. Each experience taught me that what I thought I knew was often limited or just flat out wrong. As Wayne Dyer once wrote, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
In my junior year of seminary, I went out to a little forsaken area just north of Dubuque, Iowa, and would bring a carload of kids back to the seminary to play basketball in the small gym there—the out of bounds were the walls, that level of small. However, the kids, all 12 to 15 years old, were wild with joy to come to such a setting. After a few months, I asked my pastoral care advisor if I could move into the “ghetto.” He did not pause: “Yes, and I will raise money to build a chapel there.”
Daytonville, the name of this community, was a whole new world. I was not married; I was dating a nurse, Nancy, who I had the joy of meeting while I was a chaplain intern at Milwaukee Hospital—she is now my wife of 59 years. And I lived in a rental “house” that in the winter would collect a bit of ice on the walls. The community would become part of the project to get the chapel erected, and once it was, it became a hub for the families in town. Living there gave me a chance to offer assistance, but it also allowed me to understand more about their lives.
Most of the men in town worked in auto shops (junk yards) or were construction workers—when they worked. The kids, 20 to 25 of them, went to school when they could catch the bus. I learned quickly that I had little idea of what these people went through simply to live.
In one of these families, four boys slept in the same bed, a urine filled mattress as I would learn. They would steal with a few others on Friday after school, ride home, and then wait on the porch for the police to come to arrest them. The reason became clear and simple: they got a fresh bed each night and hot meals. My whole idea of jail being a punishment went out the window. Later, the words, “When I know something, I know half,” came to mean more.
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
Curiously, on Monday mornings, I began to go to court to see how the judge was going to “punish” the boys. He was a caring man who knew somehow that “sending them off” would not help and would cost the county considerably. After a few visits there, the judge asked who I was and why I was coming regularly to court. I told him what was being done to try to help the boys and was taken aback when he asked if I could come to his church and tell my story. A Presbyterian judge? I went from that Monday on.
When I was in court, Judge Williams would ask, “Are these your kids?” I would reply, “Yes.” He would release them to my custody. This dilemma for a juvenile court judge still remains: what to do with 10 to 14 year olds who are brought to court. Just ask Judge Timothy Irwin’s juvenile court and see him try to figure out what resources are available for these young people who have gotten into trouble largely because of a trouble situation at home.
I lived in Daytonville for three years. It was the beginning of me trying to learn more about what was going on in people’s lives before I made a judgment. It’s precisely what led me to applying for and being accepted into a Pastoral Care Residency at St. Elizabeth in Washington, D.C., the only federal mental hospital in the U.S. with just over 12,000 patients. Nancy accepted a psychiatric nursing position there, too. But that’s a story for another day.
For now, I keep reminding myself, “When I know something, I know half.” When each of us is able to stay open to being present in our journey, and use our gifts in the process, we can make a change in people’s lives. When we get stuck, or something causes us to pause and rethink, we might remind ourselves that we may not know the whole story—we may only know half.