Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle Philo of Alexandria
When I was in my early 20s, a bright eyed and eager social worker just out of college, I took a job in a skilled nursing facility. The nursing facility took patients from its nearby mother hospital who had long term care needs. The job was previously held by two mastered leveled social workers but had been narrowed to one when they couldn’t get along with each other. Unbeknownst to me, the facility was in economic straits, they saw energetic, bubbly me coming from a mile away.
This was not my first social work job, I had worked in a community child abuse center and had done other volunteer work. However, this was my first job dealing intensely with death and dying and its consequent suffering to date. Clearly, many patients were there to die. We served every walk of life including prostitutes, the chronically drug addicted (mostly long time heroin users) and the homeless. Although completely mired down in psychosocial assessments, I made it a point to do rounds everyday.
Many days I would get calls from patients who were dying and the most I could do was literally run upstairs, dressed in a white medical coat and be with them as they died. One woman I remembered so well struggled for months before she died with unrelenting bitterness and a deep desire to forgive. We talked and talked about the power of forgiveness. Although I was young and green, the gravity of the healing process was not lost on me.
Because the facility was near gang territory, it wasn’t unusual for us to hear gun shots being fired. One day we admitted a young man, about my age, to the facility. He was a John Doe who had been dropped off at the entrance of the mother hospital two weeks previously by his fellow gang members. He had been beaten in the head with a baseball bat. Hauntingly, even two weeks after the attack, no one came to claim him. Somehow, it became my job to see if I could find out who he belonged to and where he was from. He wore nothing but a diaper as I checked his body for tell tale tattoos which might give more information. I knew that a young man my age would be mortified to have a young woman see him in a diaper. I sat in his hospital room staring blankly at him for hours wondering how someone could be discarded without anyone to mourn him. We never did find out who he was. He died after his second day with us.
As I contemplate this young man and so many others who I’ve worked with over 25 years, the developmentally challenged, the abused, the elderly, the chronically drug addicted, the incarcerated, decades later, I wonder about alleviating suffering, both existential and “naked” (chronic or abiding).
As a teenager, I started off working in classrooms and later parlayed my experience with children into child abuse focused social work because I wanted to work with problems of suffering in what seemed to be a more direct way. I later pursued life coaching because social work seemed to take place only as an adjunct to the big institutions (the church, the school system, the welfare system, etc..). It seemed to me those institutions with their red tape, mind numbing bureaucracy and lack of belief in the value of the individual seemed to cause as much, and at times, more problems than were there in the first place. Presently, it seems life coaching gives me an opportunity to help clients utilize all of their natural strengths, use tried and true tools or philosophies such as positive psychology, personality measures and hypnosis and even the clients own spiritual perspectives to ameliorate existential suffering.
However, as someone who wrote her dissertation on suffering, I am often haunted by whether or not I am doing enough to ameliorate it. Certainly, life coaching is not associated with deep suffering. That is psychotherapy’s domain. However, I once read a story whose origins I don’t remember, about a therapist who traveled to a war ravaged country. She felt inadequate to deal with such depth of suffering. To her surprise, a majority of her client’s angst had to do with the same things she dealt with her clientele back at home: romantic challenges, self loathing and feelings of alienation.
After contemplating over two decades in people helping professions, I have come to somewhat of a conclusion. We can all strive to help that person in front of us, whomever that might be. It is obvious that some people are suffering and we can and should do what we can. But it was Henry David Thoreau who acknowledged that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Certainly, it is important to help all who suffer and surely that is most of us. Mother Teresa offered “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.”
Some people ask me why I would sponsor children from other countries (presently I sponsor children from India and Ecuador) when there are children that are impoverished in the United States. My response is that to me it doesn’t matter where kids are from, they just happen to assign me those children. I try to serve who shows up including those who I become aware of in seemingly random ways.
I am so moved by Father Gregory Boyle who started Homeboy Industries. He didn’t speak Spanish when he started working with gang members from Boyle Heights, California, but he showed up for them. Initially, when he was assigned to that parish, he felt hugely inadequate but he has brought untold healing to that community. Just like Father Gregory, right here, right now, may be the place you can do the most good in alleviating suffering.
(c) 2011 Jeanine Marie Austin, Ph.D., C.Ht.
Doctor of Life Coaching, Certified Hypnotherapist
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