Everything I’ve Seen Is Almost Too Much


This is my face near the end of a chaplain shift at the hospital.

I entered chaplaincy almost six years ago. I have loved every second of it. And every second of it has been brutally, insanely, impossibly hard.

I’ve sat with thousands of patients now. So many who told me their final words, secrets, regrets, confessions. At their deathbeds, watching their heart rate dwindle down to single digits. Their last breath on earth.

I have seen terrible things. There are sounds a human can make which no human ever should. Pure agony. Sometimes grief. Other times relief.

Something I haven’t talked about much is that during my year long residency, I lost my faith. I reverted back to atheism for a long while. I’ve shared before that my faith has always been skeptical, cautious, doubting every single day. I’m like one of those Israelites who probably ran screaming through the Red Sea, not sure if the walls of water would hold up all the way. In the hospital, I had seen too much. The waters crashed down. All this suffering, I couldn’t comprehend a god who cared about this random, haphazard, utterly chaotic madness. No pattern. No reason. Babies born to die? An entire family burned down in their sleep? A roof can just fall on a child’s head? I found it hard to believe in a god at beside. I also found it hard not to believe, either.

Eventually I did come back around. But different than before. The walls of my faith had broken, rebuilt, expanded. I found out miracles were not just healing, but a story finally being told, a family staying night after night, a covid patient rolled to a balcony above their family to say one last goodbye, a baby after weeks in a box being able to breathe on her own.

Today I am one year older. And I feel I have lived a thousand lifetimes. I have died a thousand lifetimes. I’m glad to do so. To be in the shadow of my patients, to be their cheerleader and sidekick, a tiny lighthouse in the dark of the sea: there is no higher honor than for me to cheer on my patients, who are the hero of their stories. I am but a footnote. I am grateful to be one.

I wrote a book to honor my patients, and I can only hope I did some justice to their voices.

— J.S.

My Voice Was Taken


These last few week I’ve been reading about the many assaults against Asian-Americans, and I was hit with a lightning bolt of a memory I had nearly forgotten.

It is my very first memory. I was four on my first day of preschool. The only Asian in class. I didn’t speak English. When the teacher found out, she forced me to sit in the corner all day. She told me not to talk or turn around. I wept the entire day.

My mother, when she picked me up, cussed out the teacher and switched me to another school. But it was too late. A year or two later, as I learned English, I lost much of my Korean. The trauma destroyed my native language. My tongue had been burned of its millennia of heritage in my still-forming mouth.

To this day I can still understand Korean just enough, but when I try to speak I get tongue-tied. A block. It is apparent why. My voice was strangled. A teacher failed her “non-compliant” student. A system allowed racist violence against a child. A teacher did not understand she had a non-English-speaking American in her class, and instead of including him with even the smallest gesture, simply cut him off in a corner. The teacher was a cog in a system not funded with resources to equip their educators. That child never had a chance.

Our voices are still strangled. When I am yelled at violently in traffic because “Asian driver.” Spoken very slowly to by a cashier. Spoken over constantly in meetings. When people I supervise don’t take me seriously because they are not used to an Asian in the lead. When Asian jokes are told with zero hesitation. When people who look like my father go on a walk and are killed.

I realize I am lucky. My experiences are not as bad as others. My pain though, like any pain, is still pain. And I am not tougher for what I have gone through. I was made less. I was stripped of my home tongue. But no: I will not be stripped of my voice. It will not be taken. We each have a voice, gifted by God, just the one we are given. You have a song and it must break free. You have a microphone to pass to a young uncertain child, that they may sing too. Your voice. Speak. Your voice will carry you.
— J.S.