Thank the good Lord for Friday. It has been another long hard week.
Regular readers and friends will know that I earn a living by working as a mental health social worker- for around 20 years now. Or to be honest, these days I do not do a lot of social work (although I still practice as a Mental Health Officer)- I do this other thing called ‘management’. Some days I am not sure how much longer I can do it.
What has allowed me to survive so long working within a large bureaucratic institution has been two things- firstly the need to provide for my family, and secondly the hope that I might be able to genuinely make a difference to the lives of the people I work with. In management, it is possible to fulfil the first, but the second- well the evidence is not as strong.
Being in contact with people in the extremes of distress and crisis on a daily basis does something to you. It is impossible to stay as emotionally engaged as we do when we first begin these encounters. The best of my colleagues hold on to their compassion however- we nurture it by making it shape our language, our small talk and the way we treat everyone we come across. We have learnt that kindness in the small things, despite terrible external circumstances, can indeed make a difference.
And sometimes that is the only thing we have to offer.
Images by Fred Kleinberg
In the course of my work, I come across people who have done terrible things. People who others would say have lost all sense of humanity.
People who have harmed children, or killed and dismembered people.
Others who have locked themselves away (or been locked away) and have lost or forgotten almost all basic skills of human interaction.
Perhaps most striking is watching people slowly destroyed by addiction. To see them in the later stages of this- near to death- and wonder what incredible life force keeps a person alive when skin is bright jaundice-yellow and all organs are playing discords.
Sometimes it seems that almost all that makes us human is gone.
Almost- but not all.
Because in all of these people, despite their brokenness, what is left- what is most visible, is… their humanity.
Unhidden, undefended, right on the surface like an open flesh wound.
And should we lose sight of this, the danger is that it is not their humanity that will be at risk- but rather our own.
I wrote this in response to a recent event…
Deep in the soup and the stew of him
In the ooze and glisten of his grey matter
Some synapses spark and flicker
Sending out electro-chemical dots and dashes
And he- wired almost to breaking point
Is all strung out
But deadly receptive
So bone becomes knuckle
Muscles turn to gristle
And poisoned sinew moves like a snake
Ready to strike
Later some said he was evil
That some dark thing was in him
Others called him mad
A flesh machine gone wrong
Still others bayed for his blood
-as if enough had not been spilt already
They want eyes put out for the eyes he closed
And every broken tooth smashed in return
Me, I stand over a stain in an old carpet
Through which something human has fallen
And feel a little of myself