Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2022 - Volume 22, No. 2
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A Man Must Do....

As a psychotherapist, I’m generally not an advice giver. Rather my work is to help my client come to his or her own best choices, or to navigate life in a manner that their own best choices can emerge.

Underlying this are three logical assumptions:
1)  There exist among many choices available, some that could be ‘best choices’.
2)  There is a freedom available to make such choices. Sometimes circumstances, laws, ethics, finances, promises or commitments, limit or preclude our freedom to make or consider ‘best choices’. But still it can be there.
3)  The existence of a moral courage (or a ‘moral compass’) at a personal, social, or cosmic/societal level to ‘do what is right’ in a given situation.  

(Although there are times when my being direct is most useful.)

A personal burden

In an ‘earlier life’ I spent some years as a medical social worker in one of the finer Flint hospitals. One of my roles was as a patient discharge planner - which quite often meant expediting the transfer of a patient to a lesser level of care facility - generally called a “nursing home transfer.”  (Let the background music machine here emit a minor key demonic shudder.) Often this would turn out to be a ‘final’ transfer.

During those years I gained a pretty good knowledge of the various post acute-care facilities available, and how they rated on my own personal ‘circumstance/value’ scale. In a sense, I knew too much. In guiding patients and families through these choices, I frequently knew some had to be less than good choices. And yet….[2]

I’ll sometimes note to friends, that if the universe is subject to karmic balance, I’ll have a handful of future debt yet to work out for all of this.

Also my heart aches for those in the overburdened healthcare system of our own time. The term “triage” these days can even have the angels shuddering.

And now - a friend’s plight

This all came back to me when a close family friend, contacted me. Her elderly mother, living with her, and declining into dementia, had fallen at home, resulting in three serious fractures. Sending her to a good local hospital was a no-brainer - orthopedic surgical care, private room, the works.  But now she must be transferred to a “rehab” facility.  Her mother (whom I’ve also known for some years) was much afraid, but could not be sent home where she would have to be part time alone much of the day, due to her daughter’s employment, and the absence of other available family, options, etc.

The daughter’s dilemma was this:  She had promised her mother she wouldn’t put her in a “home” and would return to her own home (of almost 2 decades). The daughter was essentially frozen in guilt. So I told her this story.

The story of the Russian Naval Captain

Back around the mid 1960’s, I was in Seminary/Graduate School in New Jersey.  We had a new young homiletics (the art of preaching) professor - too young to be wise, but old enough to be intelligent (there’s a difference).  One day he shared with us a (actually wise) anecdote he had just read, which I carry with me to this day:

The narrative was an interview of a World War One Russian naval captain. In the course of things he was asked this question: “How can you justify that the sole purpose of your existence is the destruction of other ships?”

The Russian captain thought, then answered:  A man[1] must do what a man must do, then say his prayers.

I knew at that moment I’d given the daughter the best that I knew, and was pleased I carried that story memory. The next day the daughter had her mother transferred to a (fairly reputable) ‘rehab’ facility. And I speak with the mother by phone almost daily - listening through the dementia to her complaints about the facility and her fears for the future. And I know the daughter prays actively.  

A Rich Tradition

For years I’ve used Compline (“the Church’s Night Prayer” - Anglican & monastic) as my own. It has the pattern of initially addressing the Almighty, then a confession.  I like that initial rhythm. I’m not a ‘sin collector’ per se, it’s just that it feels honest and right for me. Then I can go about remembering ‘all my people’.  

The Russian Captain’s balanced answer has that similar perfect balance feeling for me. Without either the first phrase, or the second, it can be easily abused. But in the balance, each side supports the integrity of the other. For some years I found missing that ‘Protestant save-the-world-activism’ in which I was raised. But upon deeper introspection (and age), I find it’s still there as a subtle undercarriage.

Well, so much for bragging about my own spiritual tradition. It’s just that I like it, and it seems to feed me well. And when the story’s right for sharing, it’s ready in my head and heart. Perhaps it can become the same for you. And may your own resources for caring in this troubled world, serve yourself and others richly.

Pay Attention


[1] I have included “a man” to honor the original source quote. Hopefully you, the reader, will internally and appropriately translate that to “a person” - or just “one.”

[2] In all fairness, over the years of this work, I did develop a pretty good working rapport with many of the nursing homes so I could negotiate and perhaps soften the necessary transition.

Comments (1)

  • You’re stories and wisdom have helped me in the past. After going thru some personal issues the part about the moral compass really hit home for me. Thank you for reminding me of that compass.

    — Kevin McKee, 2/3/2022

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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