The One About Graduating

I have been reluctant to write this post ever since I graduated last Sunday. My excuses are justified: I have been working and tired, so, so tired after a whirlwind 16-month program. Notwithstanding legitimate excuses, something was still holding me back.

Completing a master’s program connotes mastery, a feat of monumental importance… as if I have mastered social work. Mastery seems more fitting of an engineering project, a new drug that will benefit others, something more tangible perhaps, something less messy.

There is nothing about social work that is clean and simple.

In my program, I learned of deep systemic issues that are nearly impossible to penetrate. I spent nearly 1000 hours interning at a nonprofit agency working with mentally ill individuals, their families, and the community. I fell in love with working with these people and with this work.

Echoed over and over again was the sentiment, Why do things have to be this way?

My only possible response was (and is) silence.

I can’t tell people why their lives were interrupted by mental illness in the primes of their college days.

I can’t tell someone who was abused in an old school mental hospital decades ago why he or she was treated that way.

I can’t wave a magic wand and find solutions to life’s most horrifying social issues.

Knowledge is a dangerous, subversive thing. Once you know something, you can’t go back. I started my social work program, frankly, for the reputation and versatility of the degree, and I have come out with more questions and a deep understanding of the brokenness that exists on every level of humanity. As a “master of social work,” I don’t want to celebrate my accomplishments as much as utilize what I’ve learned to help others.

Social workers have the reputation of having bleeding hearts and wanting to change the world. Tapping into life’s brokenness perhaps somewhat explains the high burn out rate in the profession. “Changing the world” as a blanket, lofty goal is too abstract to implement. So, for this blog post, I am only going to talk about changing the world with respect to myself and my own sphere of influence.

I want to work with mental illness (eventually eating disorders) and address social issues that arise within that context… but if you have read my blog at all, you know that I have felt deep pain and suffering, and I am deeply attuned to that constant struggle. Healing from said pain is an ongoing process. I feel odd to be in a helping profession when that negative inner voice whispers, You’re not good enough to do much of anything, much less be of help to others. I have fought that persistent little voice of inadequacy for so long, but it keeps coming back, much like a whack a mole game at an arcade.

Changing the world is one thing.

Changing myself is another thing entirely.

I was reminded by the student commencement speaker at my graduation ceremony that we in helping professions are ALL wounded healers (Henri Nouwen’s concept). No one is impervious to the systemic, individual, familial, or societal pain of a fallen world. Social workers, as well as every other human being, are wounded. The question is: what do we do with woundedness?

What am I going to do with my woundedness? 

I am going to advocate for those with debilitating mental illness. I strive to eradicate eating disorders. I fight so that every person with a mental illness can get adequate, respectful, humane treatment. I want to write about my struggles with an eating disorder and anxiety. I want to change the way people see mental illness. I want to do that all because I have suffered.

Compassion is seriously lacking in this world. Machines cannot replace human love and affection. For all of us, and especially for people in the world who are most vulnerable, compassion is exactly what is needed. There is something sacred and humbling about standing in solidarity with those in their darkest moments. Compassion can be the healing ointment that soothes the oozing sores that arise in this scary, painful, dark, lovely, sometimes horrifying, strange world.

So going back to the beginning of this post, yes, I have graduated with a degree so that I can work in a helping profession. That has meant a lot of things. I have become a “master” in using CBT to treat anxiety disorders. I have become a “master” at using the DSM-5. I may be a “master” in the field of social work.

But I have not become a “master” in understanding the human condition, human suffering, or the solution to social problems. Nor could I be. What I do know is that I can empathize with others because I have suffered. I can hold on to difficult, complicated issues because I have felt the full spectrum of human emotions myself. I love others and treat them with dignity because I have been loved.

I am privileged to receive an advanced degree in the first place. I don’t discount that. But a degree is only a degree. I need to be continually taking deep, hard looks at myself before I start changing the world.