THE LENS

One of the unfortunate side effects of working with vulnerable populations who have experienced complex trauma and chaotic lifestyles is that many of us begin to see the world through that jaded lens.

I will never forget reading Laura van Denoot Lipsky’s book, Trauma Stewardship, for the first time. (I read this book a few times throughout my career, and if you have not read it, I highly recommend it.) In the beginning of the book, she told a story about hiking a mountain with her family. When she got to the top, everyone else was looking at the view and talking about how majestic and beautiful it was. At the same time, she was looking down off the side of the cliff and wondering how many people might have jumped from that very spot as an attempt to commit suicide.

I remember having similar experiences. I was at a local minor league baseball game once and remember seeing a father with his arm around his young daughter’s shoulders and thinking that he must be abusing her. I also remember seeing a young couple in the grocery store having a very normal argument and thinking that they must be in a domestic violence relationship.

It is moments like this when we might feel as though we want to retreat from the world and not continue to expose ourselves to those experiences. The cure to this for me, and the action that allows me to change my lens, is actually the opposite. It means that I need to be around people. I need to play with my friends’ children who are happy and healthy. I need to spend time with people who are in relationships that are mutually respectful and loving. And sometimes, I just need to go sit in a local park and listen to the laughter of happy children and the voices of loving parents.

This work can allow us to drown in the idea that the whole world is tainted and damaged. It is our responsibility to keep ourselves grounded in the fact that there is laughter, and hope, and joy, and love, around every corner. We just have to be willing to look.

MY PARENTS

Sometimes I think that the happiness of others is the most authentic experience of joy.

My parents are fantastic people. Like everyone, they are not without their flaws, but they have both spent their lives taking care of others and giving back to their community. My parents are the kind of people who put a bag of can goods on the front steps when the Boys Scouts are collecting, put a bag of clothes for donation when it’s the Little Sisters of the Poor, collect toiletries when they travel, to donate to the youth I serve, volunteer at their church, and sing in the church choir. My parents are just all around good people.

They are also people who have worked hard. My parents are not rich but always made sure that my sister and I were provided for. They have lived paycheck to paycheck at times, and at other times, had money for road trips or vacations. My father worked at the same business from the time he was 19 years old until he retired 45+ years later. My mother gave up her original career path as a mathematician because she wanted to work more with people and took up a career in education and religious education.

Now that my parents are retired they are doing some amazing things with some really good people. My parents are traveling a lot. I could try to name all the places they have gone, but I know that I would miss a bunch. The point is, my parents are exploring the world and seeing places that they have always wanted to see.

In addition, my parents are remodeling their house. They have been living in the same house since they were married 42 years ago. They were only able to afford the house then because my father was in an accident on his motorcycle that was not his fault and he received a settlement as a result. They have decided that this is the house that they would like to live out their lives in and therefore are remodeling it to be exactly what they want it to be.

When I talk to and see my parents, and hear about their latest adventure or the pursuit to find just the right granite countertops, it truly fills me with joy. I cannot even put words to it. My parents are genuinely happy and living a life that they want to be living. When I get to hear about it, my heart overflows. There is no one more deserving of the peace and fulfillment that my parents are experiencing, and I am so grateful that this is their life. There is no truer joy than to feel the happiness of the people you love the most.

WHY WAIT?

We human beings have some bizarre behaviors.

Not too long ago, a young middle school student in a nearby community was diagnosed with Leukemia. I talked about this with one of her classmates and he told me about his observations. He said, “I think it is sad when anyone gets diagnosed with cancer. I wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone. But I don’t really know her. She has been in some of my classes but she and I have never really been friends. She is very quiet. I hope that she gets better but I am not going to be her friend just because of this. So many people are acting like they are her best friend now. It’s weird.”

I also have a close friend who is leaving for military boot camp in a few days. Over dinner last night she was telling me about how strange it feels to have people with whom she rarely talks or spends time, contact her and say that they need to get together before she leaves.

When I think about these two experiences – one of pre-teens and one of adults, I am left feeling the same thing. If there are people in your sphere who matter to you, individuals with whom you want to spend time and build a relationship, make it happen. It might be the quiet girl in the corner who seems nice, or someone you’ve known as an acquaintance for a long time. Either way, don’t wait until something drastic occurs to step out of your comfort zone and build a friendship. You may think that the people in your life know that they matter to you, but it actually takes time and effort for people to truly know that.

GROUNDING

When doing this kind of work that is so abstract and for which we may never see the results, it is always great to have a hobby that is much more concrete. At my previous home, I had a vegetable and herb garden. I would spend time every day after work weeding the garden, watering the garden, and pulling the horned tomato worms off each plant. There was something so satisfying about planting seeds and seedlings and watching them grow and produce vegetables and herbs. There was something even more satisfying about picking the small harvest throughout the spring and summer and including it in meals. I haven’t gardened in a few years now but decided that this was going to be the year that I resumed this hobby. 

Where I currently live, an expansive garden like what I had previously is not an option. Instead, I have planted a small herb garden in containers and a few flower bulbs in pots. I can’t really explain the fundamentals of it all, but gardening, even on this small scale, is extremely therapeutic. 

From time to time, working in this field is stressful almost to the point of overwhelming – the number of youth needing services increases, 4 grants all need to be written at the same time, staff quit unexpectedly leaving us short-handed, and new staff need to be trained. I feel as though I run through the work day a mile a minute and have very little opportunity to slow down. 

Gardening gives me this opportunity to slow down. It grounds me and helps me to breathe and to relax. It is satisfying. Harvesting basil and including it in my caprese salad as part of dinner provides the kind of satisfaction that comes with seeing the results of my own efforts. 

I hope that everyone who works in this field or any field that requires a lot of intellectual and emotional energy with a lack of concrete immediate results finds a hobby that allows them to slow down and produce something. This may be gardening, but it also may be music or art or woodworking or construction. Find something that fills you with satisfaction and allows you to see the concrete results of your own handy work. It is a truly grounding experience.

WHAT CARRIES ME

We are flawed human beings with extremely challenging lives, both personal and professional. I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel as though there are just not enough hours in the day and not enough energy to keep me going. Sometimes staff move on to other positions with little notice and we are left shorthanded. Sometimes it seems as though everyone needs something at the same time. Sometimes our own children are struggling at the same time that life at work has high demands.

These are the times when it feels easiest to withdraw inside the busyness, and to neglect relationships and my own self-care, because at the end of the day, all I want to do is unplug from it all. In reality, these are the times when I have to be the most diligent about reaching out to my supports, and taking care of myself. And when I do, when I pick up the phone and call a friend or my mom at the end of the day, it seems to make some of the stress of the day melt away. I am grateful that I have people in my life who love me, and understand me, and care enough to listen and to meet me wherever I am. I am grateful for a support network that makes even the most challenging of times bearable, and accepts me despite my flaws.

If you cannot think of at least two people in your life who accept you exactly as you are and are willing to just listen when you need an ear, I would urge you to intentionally nurture some relationships. No matter how hard we might try sometimes, no one can operate as an island. We need people to love us, support us, to be nonjudgmental, and to carry us through when life is challenging.

About the Author...

EKleftside-street Webfade



I’m Erin, and I’ve used my 15+ years of human services experience working to understand youth who are on the fringes as an attempt to create services that have the potential to change their life trajectory. I get out of bed each morning with a renewed sense of purpose, and I go off to work to play my part. I believe that if we each do our small part, that collectively we have the potential to change the big picture.

To me, this is more than a job; it’s a journey, a mission, a calling, and an honor.

I don’t believe that I have all the answers, but with some regular meditation, a solid support network, and a commitment to this work--no matter how hard it gets, I believe that much can be accomplished.

I invite you along on this journey. Share what you have learned, what keeps you going, and what makes you crazy. None of us are in this world alone and I am grateful that we can walk beside each other even if only for a few moments.

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