Saving the world

January 10, 2009

Saving the world used to seem like such a great idea.  In fact, it seemed like the only option.  Here I was, young, hardworking, motivated, smart, ambitious.  Who better to fix this mess than me? 

And thus, I majored in social work.  I learned about active listening and empowerment and justice for all.  And it all seemed like such an excellent idea.  Common sense, really. 

I still believe that the basics of social work are common sense.   Isn’t it obvious that people need to feel like they are contributing to society in order to participate in it?  Isn’t it obvious that someone who respects themselves is more likely to respect others?  Isn’t it obvious that we’re all in this together? 

Well, apparently not.  Or apparently so?  It’s all very confusing.  What they don’t teach you in social work school is that although the vast majority of people agree with these points, they define ‘contributing to society,’ ‘respect,’ and ‘in this together’ very differently. 

In social work school, almost everybody agreed with everybody else.  Even when people didn’t agree with each other, everyone agreed that the disagreement was very agreeable, and boy didn’t we all learn from that discussion and thank you for sharing your views. 

Imagine what a shock it was to me, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed social worker fresh out of school, the first time I voiced my dissent and received not the pat on the head I was used to but an angry rebuttal. 

And the person refused to recognize my right to self-determination!  It was hardly empowering.  In fact, it was downright disappointing. 

What I learned over the course of my three years as a social worker was that the world was not nearly as receptive to being saved as I’d expected it to be.  People actually are uncomfortable with the idea that they need saving. 

The result was a lot like being a lifeguard, trying to rescue a drowning person who fights back and drags you to the bottom with them instead of relaxing and enjoying the ride back to shore. 

And like the lifeguard, I assumed that if I could just stay calm and keep my head above water eventually the victim would tire out and let me take care of things. 

Then one day it occurred to me that the majority of the people on my caseload weren’t drowning.  Most of them were comfortably treading water, or swimming with broad strokes in the other direction. 

Experienced social workers do not suffer from the illusion that they are saving the world.  Maybe they keep a family together, or help someone stop drinking, or find a home for a teenage runaway.  They measure their success one individual at a time on a sliding scale depending on what works for each person. 

This takes a very special type of person.  A type that is not me.  I admire the social workers of the world.  They must be both moralists and objective, and that is a very tricky combination. 

My saving the world days are over.  I now offer myself not as a savior, nor as a hands-on teacher.  That kind of in-the-trenches work is better done by those less timid, with that admirable combination of tolerance and grit that makes a good social worker. 

I hope my contribution will be quieter, more subtle, by passing on my observations, and providing people with something worth thinking about.  As any savvy social worker will tell you, even if saving the world were a manageable task, it is not a realistic goal. 

Very few people need to be rescued.  Most of us just want to contribute to society in our own way and respect ourselves in the way that best suits us. 

Yes, we are all in this together, and it might be a whole lot easier to live on this crowded planet if we’d focus less on saving everyone around us, and more on saving ourselves.  If we all did that, there’d be no need for social workers.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus January 10, 2009.