I began working in hospital ministry in 2000. At that time, like now, we had to wash our hands before and after every patient visit to prohibit the spread of germs from patient to patient. The difference between then and now was that in 2000, we had to walk to a physical sink on the unit, stop, plunge our hands under a stream of hot water, and scrub. Now, we push a lever on one of the ubiquitous hand sanitizer pumps and get handful of cleansing foam which we rub into our hands as we move to the next patient.
While I appreciate the efficiency of the hand sanitizer pumps, I miss the old way of going to the sink. I know, I know, I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, "Back in my day...". But the pumps take something away. I felt this something missing when I first returned to hospital ministry in 2007. But it took me almost a year to figure out that what I was lacking was the ritualistic element of stopping after each patient, cleansing my hands, and then returning to my work without carrying anything from the previous visit into the next. And it's more than just germs I am talking about. Standing at the sink and scrubbing my hands gave me a chance to breathe deeply, to pause and reflect on my previous visit, and to release the emotional weight of that visit before I went into another room and another visit.
The sanitizing foam kills the germs on my hands, but it doesn't actually remove anything from me. Instead it just builds up. After several visit, I notice that my hands have become sticky; the foam, coating all of those dead germs, is still there, getting thicker and thicker and making my hands feel yucky.
My heart feels much the same way when I don't pause and release the emotional weight of each visit before moving onto the next. I understand how burnout happens. And I understand how the visits themselves build up and get all sticky and yucky if I don't take a moment for cleansing and renewal.