A Path With Heart

(Yes, I stole the title)

What do you want to be when you grow up? We have all heard that question, some of us far more often than others. When I was younger, the answer was simple- become a lawyer and hold elective office. Over time, that changed as I moved from job to job and grad to school to law school to grad school, etc. But the overriding goal was to have an impact on the world, to improve the lot of others. Over the years, I found many ways to affect change in the world- served on the school committee, crafted policy, conducted research- but only one position truly held my interest and fueled my passion. My work with suicidal children, and then with children who had emotional and behavioral disorders, fulfilled me in ways that are at once enormous yet intangible.

After being laid off from the Donahue Institute I thought of many different paths that I could choose. I had been focusing on completing a PhD in health care policy. It would certainly have provided the intellectual challenge that I find so rewarding and necessary. But the more I really sat with my ideas and listened deeply to my soul I realized that it was not the right path. My work in politics and policy have provided me with some opportunities to make change, but they have given me many more moments of frustration (and boredom). For much of that time, I allayed my concerns by buying into the myth that I was making change on a macro level, and therefore improving so many more people’s lives.

But the sad reality is that politics and policy is not only far removed from actually helping others, but itself has been so overtaken by money and powerful interests that what was once a small glimmer of hope for making societal change is now nothing more than a fantasy. Our politics is beyond broken. Our government is captive to monied interests, whose scores of lobbyists and campaign contributions serve to tilt the playing field even more in their favor. I look back and realize that much of my work in the field was a mere parlor game.

While many people share these views about our broken political system, so few are willing to work to make change. And those same powerful interests do their best to ensure that there will always be not merely atomization of reformers, but very real wedges between groups. I hesitate to call the situation hopeless, as that word is not a normal part of my vocabulary.

But what we do need is a change of consciousness. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Occupy Movement, they are getting to the heart of the matter in many ways. We need to rethink our values, reexamine what we hold dear, strengthen relationships among people, empower ourselves and others, focus on creating (rather than destroying) communities and so much more.

Which leads me back to the original question- what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I’ve grown up and realize that I need to be on a path with heart. Whether that means becoming a social worker or a minister is still to be determined. Each one takes care of souls, albeit in somewhat different ways. But both are committed to social justice, to building community, to empowering individuals and to helping place the focus on people, not profits.

Making Ourselves Feel Better

Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.

We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.

What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.

When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.

And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.

We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.

It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.