Both are good for the heart. This is what I am prepared to say in the event that anyone should ever ask me, “How do you keep doing the work you do? “
I’ve always done the kind of work that elicits that question. Children with developmental disabilities; parents who abuse or neglect their kids, most commonly because of drug addiction and life long trauma; children who witness terrible things or have terrible things happen to them. When people would ask it, I’d sometimes think it was naïve, or pitying, or uninformed. But when I learned to ask it of myself, it became one of the most central questions in my life.
Early in my professional training, I remember being told not to become emotionally involved in my work. I found out early how much of that was crazy talk; and ever since, I have been building a repertoire of self-preservation practices. No one leaves their emotions at the door each morning. It’s baggage that’s with us for good. And it’s likely that at least half, maybe a little more, maybe most, of our talents have to do with emotional intelligence, intuition, and empathic connection. It’s always a good idea to have a brain in the mix as well, but the people in this work who have no emotional engagement with it are train wrecks. My exploration of the literature of reflective practice has helped immensely – learning by doing, learning from experience; learning from mistakes and successes – requiring only that we slow down enough to notice what is happening around and within.
I buy the capsules at Walgreen’s every month and The Writers Almanac delivers a poem to my email in box each morning.. That and a double cappuccino, and I am out the door for the day. Put my feet to the floor, keep them moving till I am home again tonight. Move through five days, then two to recharge. Make it, one day at a time through the winter, and you will eventually feel a warm breeze, a thaw, the sound of returning birds. There are a certain number of winters remaining.
Increasingly I feel the challenge of working and staying healthy, sustaining energy and attention, and most of all, preserving hope; which I almost always have had in adequate supply. Now, I am increasingly aware of the daily expenditure of emotional energy. But what else would I be saving it for?
Much is written in our field about traumatic contagion; vicarious trauma and vicarious pain, as if the main hazard were depletion of one’s well being. Less is said about vicarious grace, vicarious courage, or vicarious joy – all of which are equally contagious. Is it possible that one’s well being stands to gain, not lose, from such exposure?
Where is the heart in this work? Neither too close to the surface; nor too deeply hidden. How does one make it last?
I think I collected these stories once, in the span of a single week:
A foster mother holds a nine month old boy with facial indicators of fetal alcohol exposure. “It breaks my heart to think of him going back to his mother”
Someone gives a small compliment: You have put your heart into this case; and a case manager bursts into tears, because it is not enough and because sometimes it is too late to salvage a small heart and soul.
A young mom with a methamphetamine addiction who waited pregnant and in jail for a new residential program to open, graduates four months later, with a healthy baby who has bonded to her, both free of drugs. Every other woman in treatment, every staff member, sheds tears at her graduation.
A woman with early stage Alzheimers disease cannot recognize her husband’s face. “But my heart knows him”, she says.
A supervisor closes the discussion of a difficult case; a family in crisis and closed off from all offers of help; for whom it seems there is nothing we can do; with these words: “Bless their hearts.” Such a sweet old saying, reminding me of my grandmother. Years later, it is an image I can recall when I need to live with contradictions; imperfections; irritations and worse. My own, and others’.
Most of our work days begin with a check-in around the conference room table, before everyone takes off in a different direction for the day. How are you feeling? What is your goal for today? Who can you ask for help? Not just “how busy are you” but “how is your heart?”
I love this as a start to the day. Recently, the “One Poem A Day” was this one, and now I hope to bring that same aura of reflection to the end of the day.
At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions
by John O’ Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us
What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today? How deeply did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence – why was I given this day?