One of my favorite things about consciousness is the mind’s ability to make meaning from seemingly disconnected experiences. While out on a long run this morning at the crack of dawn with my rad new running group (thanks, Run Far!), I began to reflect on my professional world. My role as a social worker has nothing to do with running; in fact, running is a helpful escape from thinking so intensely about the struggles of social justice work. It’s painful in a different way, i guess, and maybe that’s why my brain clicked into gear this morning.
I was thinking about how feeling pain makes me want to quit. When I’m out running and lose my breath on a hill workout, or my toes start to ache from rubbing my shoes for too many miles, I want to stop immediately. The pain is sometimes unbearable, especially since I’m a newer runner, still adjusting to what this feels like in my body. I can feel tears welling up in my eyes and all those deeply held insecurities about my body shape or my pace start rushing to the forefront. I start believing that I’m not good enough. I want to give up.
At work, I’ve noticed a similar thought process. Of course I love what I do: there is no greater pleasure than to truly be with another person in their suffering and help them navigate a path to recovery. But never ending phone calls and case notes, compounded by the frustration of working with a broken, oppressive system takes its toll. Sometimes there are too many trauma narratives to hold in my heart. When I work with someone who’s experiences parallel my own and begin to reflect on how difficult my journey has been in the past, I have to take time away. Some days that means crying in the bathroom or my supervisor’s office. Others it means eating a cafeteria pudding cup for lunch and going to bed at 7 PM. It almost always unleashes a plethora of negative thoughts and emotions. It makes me question my competence and wonder if I can stay in this profession for an entire career. I know so many incredible clinicians who seem to burn out and transition into something else. And these huge social problems of poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, and authoritative mental health systems are simply not going away; that’s why our profession exists in the first place.
When I get caught up in the enormity of human pain and suffering, I start surfing the job boards, imagining that there might be a better employment option out there. Something a little less stressful with better benefits. With less direct contact with that raw, human emotion that causes me to critically deconstruct the way the word works. But I’ve come to realize that this is a fantasy. There’s nothing better out there. I’m already working the greatest job possible for me; the pain is just wearing on me and getting in the way of recognizing the merits of what I’m doing. Social work is hard work, and I’m still relatively new to it.. It’s normal to want to give up, because facing the reality of the everyday plight of humanity is hard fucking work.
The most effective way to work through the pain, in both running and social justice, seems to begin with the breath. It involves rallying in community and encouraging each other to continue on this difficult path we’ve chosen. And reminding ourselves that we won’t solve these complex social problems in one lifetime, and that’s okay. If at the end of our lives we have helped move the cause even just a little bit further toward progress, we will have succeeded.