If there were a social work bible, I imagine the Genesis chapter would read as a series of problems begetting new problems. At least, that is how the first stage of my social work career has been developing. The more I know, the more I know. And the less I know. And the less I know I know. (That was fun to read, right?)
This process of knowing and not knowing can make me feel both helpless and encouraged. It depends somewhat on the nature of the problem. And the client. And the resources at my disposal. And my mood. And all that jazz (I started writing this during Tony’s week).
I feel helpless when I have trouble noticing small positive things and can only see insurmountable obstacles. On helpless days I feel the need to tackle the entire mental health system or child welfare system or educational system… or maybe just world peace.
I feel encouraged on days I notice the little things adding up and when small moments of progress feel worthwhile and real and important. On these days, hearing heartbreaking stories seems like a step forward in addition to being a painful reminder of all the terrible things that happen in the world (instead of only the latter).
So where did I begin?
In the personal statement I submitted with my application to social work school, I wrote:
- “In retrospect, this pull to help and understand others has been present in my life from an early age. My mother has a story she likes to tell about me at around age five. In the story, I am sitting across the kitchen table from my toddler brother saying, “B-b-b-ball, Jim, b-b-b-ball; C-c-c-cat, Jim, c-c-c-cat.” A year or so later, I was back at the same table with flashcards, teaching my brother how to subtract two from four and add five and five. My determination to pass my knowledge on to my brother was unwavering. I continued this trend of helping and working with others during middle and high school by volunteering each summer at a Girl Scout camp where I taught cooperation and teamwork skills. “
And later in my conclusion:
- “I believe my…drive to help people feel good about their lives will allow me to contribute positively to the social work community… I know I will feel accomplished as long as I am working towards helping and supporting people as they work towards living fulfilling lives as best they can. I think that this attitude will encourage a positive working relationship with coworkers and clients and allow me to learn and grow constantly throughout my career. “
My mom’s feedback after reading the first draft of this personal statement went something like this: It is very nice, but I think you sound very idealistic. I tried in vain to tone down the idealism and eventually told her that I thought that it might just be the whole reason I was going to social work school. I know you are all thinking: An idealistic social worker? Unheard of! Very funny, guys.
Still, when I wrote my personal statement, I had no idea what the next few years would bring. Unlike some of my social work school peers who worked in social services before applying to graduate school, my closest experiences were helping my friends and family and working and volunteering at summer camps. I have now had experiences that show how useful idealism can be and experiences that make idealism seem like a total waste. I choose to believe both are true.
I am still at the beginning of my social work career and I expect that the best and worst are yet to come. The problems aren’t done with their begetting, I’m sure.