The first of May is May Day. For some that is a day of celebration, others a time of demonstrations, and starting in 1927, May Day became an internationally recognized distress call for ships at sea. The transition from radios that could only transmit the dots and dashes of Morse Code had given way to radios that carried the human voice. The 1927 International Radio Convention adopted May Day – from the French m’aidez (“help me”) – as the vocal equivalent of the Morse Code SOS signal. The practice of saying May Day to signify you are having a very bad day or minor disaster soon emerged in the popular culture of the mid-20th century.
Here in the 21st century, it seems harder than ever for us to say that like Alexander our day is progress like the one chronicled in Judith Viorst’s childrens book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It is hard for us adults to issue a distress call – to say May Day – on most days of our lives. Sometimes that changes when we’re in the hospital, sometimes being a patient lowers our defenses enough so we can talk about what’s really important in our lives.
That’s where we come in as Episcopal Chaplaincy volunteers: we’re here to listen when people are ready to talk, when they need to issue a May Day call for help or quietly reflect on their life. Our role is not to help people fix things: we face the much more important assignment of actively listening so our patients know they have been really heard and understood. Sometimes they find comfort, other times they may see things in a new way, plan out a new course of action, or finally understand a hard truth. Their ability to reach this kind of resolution depends on our ability to be good “active listeners” and poor problem solvers. Let’s remember this as we walk together through the month of May into another Bay Area summer.