Much of my human-services career has been devoted to people in emergencies. Not for me the long-term therapy approach or even the cash-assistance approach that passes for social work in much of the culture. No, thank you. I want to deal with people who have hit rock bottom -the people for whom the goal is merely to return to the situation that preceded the catastrophe. Never mind that the previous situation might itself have been terrible. Emergency work like this is the “hands” to cultural principles such as “ people shouldn’t freeze to death because they have no home.”
As a student of social work, I naively assumed that this work would consist of heroic rescue stories. How I would love to tell you that I have talked people down from bridges and tall buildings, or that my efforts alone allowed people to resume complete and well-integrated lives. Be very suspicious of someone who tells you many of those stories, because that’s not what social work looks like. It plays out on the ground by making huge urns of colossally bad coffee in those silver, institutional pots that only burn coffee and listening to people tell their stories. And listening... and listening... and listening.
For this I went to graduate school??? Absolutely. Have you ever visited a woman who has very recently given birth? I used to laugh -gently, I promise- at those women. They have this need to tell you exactly what every contraction was like, what every nurse said, what it felt like to push... until the story takes as long as the delivery itself. And she never tires of this story, telling it -compulsively almost- to every person who walks into the room. And all the stories are exactly the same. Couldn’t you tell a completely convincing one just from the stories you’ve heard? I laughed at those women, that is, until I was one -and I heard myself doing exactly the same thing. I knew I was being boring, but I could not stop myself. It was very peculiar.
And then I decided to be patient with myself and any other new mothers I would meet in the future. Child birth is such an overwhelming, life-changing experience that we have to talk about it. We learn what we think about it by listening to ourselves tell the story. The people listening to us allow us the opportunity to make meaning from these strange new circumstances.
And there you have the parallel to social work. Perhaps there has been a flood. Water tears through a person’s home, taking all possessions: clothes, furniture, toys, but also baby pictures, wedding dresses, and needlework projects not yet completed. The water takes the necessary and the sentimental, with no regard as to how much we need or care for those possessions. So, how best to help?
Much of social work relies on the assumption that there is a root problem. Homelessness, for example, can be seen as a symptom, rather than the illness itself. (And yes, I’ve chosen the metaphor advisedly.) Of course, we’re not going to let people freeze to death, so good hearted folks establish shelters and, as a country, you and I minimally fund them through our tax dollars. However, in the last few years (since Ronald Reagan was president, at least), the task of the shelter has been to figure out what problem within the individual caused the homelessness, fix that problem, and voila.... no more homelessness. Pity it didn’t work that way, but that’s the subject of another day.
However, not even punitive politicians can claim that the people who lose their homes in, say, a flood of the Mississippi River, do so because they are, at root, flawed people. How best to help now? Get a shovel and start digging through the rubble? You bet! And make some coffee, because there are going to be stories to tell. While you’re digging, these flood victims will, like new mothers, tell the same story again and again and again. You’ll begin to think that every drop of water must be recounted. All of your graduate school training will be reduced to you making sympathetic noises -and shoveling. People will come to their conclusions, in their own time; they are, in fact, the experts on their own lives. Meaning will come from the mud, if we gently facilitate the process -or at least stay out if its way.
The astute re-locator of mud will soon notice that it’s usually women and children who need to tell their stories. Men don’t do this much -or they do it differently anyway. Now, I should be clear that I have ideas about how a society should be run and how gender should and shouldn’t play into that. And I have rules about how, for instance, my family will conduct itself with regard to gender roles. However, I have to hold those rules and hopes in abeyance in the face of these people’s pain. Remember how bad things are. It will take some psychic and physical strength to keep people on this side of sanity -and men are encultured to be stoic and to fix things. There’s probably no harm in it -just this once.
But, know this. It will be the women who, years from now, tell the story of the great flood to their grandchildren. One reads in cultural anthropology that it is usually the women of a culture who tell, keep, and teach the morality and fairy tales -the myths. These myths are not falsehoods, but rather such profound truths that they can only be told through story. Read any parables, lately -just for an example? As social workers we’re not ghost writers of these myths. We’re more like the sounding board or the best of all possible editors -the one who won’t stop until your story reflects the most authentic you. Does this sound right? What about this idea? I’m unclear what you meant here.
And I have good news. While it is possible to learn to do this work really well, you can not mess it up. I know, because I have done absolutely everything wrong that can be done wrong -and the process still worked. As a young worker in a homeless shelter, at roughly the time in my life when I also had two small children, I found myself trying to listen to young Ray. I still don’t know his technical diagnosis -some unusual variant of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, probably. Whatever it was, though, it made him take forever to do anything. He would stay in the bathroom for, literally, hours just to wash his hands. He would repeat the same sentence again and again, even if we prompted him to move forward. And don’t get me started about eating; that could be a week-long drama. One night, he was mugged -not badly hurt but very shaken up. He needed to tell the story. You begin to see the problem.
I had probably been up late at night with one or both of my children. Ray’s stories were endless and told in an absolute monotone. I remember distinctly that we were sitting at the kitchen table. Coffee, though, was not available; it was too expensive for us to purchase very often. (Coffee, you will discover, is essential to the process.) I fell asleep while he was telling his story. I mean literally asleep. Not the kind of asleep that can be hidden. How embarrassing -not to mention rude. But done is done. It happened, Ray noticed, and we moved on. The point is that he came to his own conclusions without me. They might have been better conclusions had I participated in forming them -but probably not. They certainly would have happened faster. I’m sure you will never make a mistake as flagrant as banging your head on the table when you fall dead asleep with a client in the room. But even that did not destroy the power of story telling. Ray hadn’t wanted to do all the work himself; that’s why he sought me out in the first place. But he proved that he could do it, if there was no alternative. Or if the alternative was drooling on her napkin, dreaming of children who slept through the night.
So, just my limited experience of the world has white, over-educated, middle class moms telling stories to make meaning. It has blameless victims of natural disaster telling stories to make meaning, and it has homeless people, supposedly responsible for their own misfortune, telling stories to make meaning.
It seems, then, that when the rules are suspended, when things don’t make sense any more, we all start telling stories. We “get it” by listening to it. We process new facts and information by weaving them into a tale. The social worker, or any helper, friend, or relative, at best only facilitates that process -listening for themes, checking for loopholes, reflecting it all back to the story-teller for confirmation. The end result, though, is so much more than we would think. In the end, we get a life that makes sense, even in the face of disorienting experience. Maybe, we’re heroic rescuers after all. Now, if we could only get some decent coffee...