I had already spent some time as a social work student in a rape crisis center before I learned the cliché, “We can only give what we have to give.” Perhaps you’ve heard it as “You can’t fill a glass from an empty well.” Or maybe, “You can only love someone else as much as you love yourself.”
However it’s spoken, the message is the same. “Healer, first heal thy self.” I was backwards, a nineteen year old survivor of violence, suffering through, trying to find meaning in it all. If I could give to others what I never had, but a compassion I was just finding, perhaps I could heal that insatiably wounded and empty place. In social work, we call it the “wounded healer.” Typically, it is not a compliment. Yet, far too often, it’s how we find our way into this field. We land here for a reason. The particulars may vary, but undoubtedly it’s to right a wrong, balance a scale, give back, or pay it forward.
However it happens, I have learned that it comes from a deep soul place that yearns to love ourselves.
It’s hard, however. It’s hard to work in a field of mending when our culture continues to blame those who’ve been hurt. One day, I may be the first person to offer a family who fled violence the night before a meal, even though it’s nearly 4pm. The next day, I may be begging a potential funder to open their hearts, stop asking women why they stay, and instead open their checkbook to keep women and children alive.
There is a myth that when we find work we love it doesn’t feel like work; and for this Labor Day reflection, that’s the myth I’d like to challenge. I am a social worker and a non-profit administrator. I am a teacher and leader. I am a “CT Working Moms blogger” and a “Record-Journal columnist”. I am a wife, a mom, a daughter, a friend.
I am tired. It all feels like work. Yet, I love what I do.
I work after the kids go to bed. I exercise on my lunch breaks. I go to therapy to purge the stories of atrocities experienced and retold by those I serve. I hold a staff who hears more than I do. I negotiate to offer them salary increases though we haven’t seen increases in a contract amounts. I cultivate donors, teach men to embrace an image of masculinity that’s healthy, and attend far too many meetings that make far too little progress.
It is true labor. It is exhausting, time-intensive, and often without glory. It’s a life-saving business without flash, especially when I have to convince folks that these are lives worth saving.
There are moments. Like when a struggling but determined student finally gets to hear me say “you’re hired;” When a family of three is told “yes, we have warm, safe beds.” When I hear from a client of 4 years ago, telling me the greatest gift in being safe and free is watching her son’s face when he can invite a friend over to play outside, without fear. One of the most humbling conversations I had was with a mom, before she left our services, “I got a job!” “It’s a little job”, she added, as if mine was so big and important in comparison.
“I’m a part-time lunch lady. But it pays for our food, and it pays our rent, and I’m home for my son when he gets off the bus. I love the kids: every day I get to pass on smiles and kindness to all these kids right when they’re most hungry.”
Is her job any less worthy than mine? When we labor IN love, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing. We can love the grass we cut or the earth we’re helping to clean. We can love smiling at customers and making their day in the drive thru line. I can love those I serve and my staff who serve them. I can love a community who can’t decide whether they really believe EVERY life is equally valuable. Perhaps what I’ve learned most of all is this: Love is not simply a feeling, but a choice. We can choose to labor IN love over and again, as we wake up each morning and center ourselves for the day. Today, let’s choose love.
This post was originally offered as a reflection for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden in celebration of their Labor Day Service, 8/30/14.