June 30, 2019 & July 14, 2019
We think of compassion and pouring ourselves out as related concepts, and seemingly at the opposite end of the spectrum from what are big topics socially, preservation and self-care. But these aren’t opposite topics, they’re related very closely by our identity. A few weeks ago, our meditation in church talked about how the Vision draws you in. That was so affirming for me, because there’s never a second thought when it comes to what God is telling me to do. God’s worldview pulls me in to right where I’m supposed to be. In fact, more often than not, that’s my tell for whether or not I’m supposed to be somewhere or doing something – if I struggle with the decision, then chances are pretty high that this isn’t where I’m supposed to be.
In my job, I supervise volunteers who serve as advocates for children who are involved in abuse and neglect cases. I started out as a volunteer with the Guardian ad Litem program when I was 40 years old – very much led to that volunteer opportunity by divine intervention – and quickly realized that I could do this for the rest of my life. As a volunteer, I was assigned children in a family as my “case.” I spoke with everyone involved in that child’s life in order to figure out that child’s best interest regarding their education, mental health, medical care, and what their family should look like from there on out. Our job as a volunteer was to be part of the solution: we basically work through the court system to put the resources in place for children who had been traumatized so they could be equipped to be productive human beings, and not perpetual victims of their circumstances or what they experienced.
Part of this work is looking at every aspect of their lives – school, daycare, daily routines in their new placements, their behaviors in all these places, the nature of their relationships with their family members, and their new caretakers, whether family members or foster parents. We talk to teachers, coaches, school administrators, mental health providers, medical providers, caretakers, parents, family members, social workers, and a whole slew of people who might be involved in this child’s life. The goal is to learn who that child is, and then best advocate for what they need. We follow up with the progress of the parents, and whether it would be in the child’s best interest for the child to return to the home and care of their parents. It is amazing and purpose-filled work.
Then I was offered a job with the Guardian ad Litem program. It was then I realized that I had found what I was supposed to do with my life.
As a supervisor, I don’t do the individual case work any longer. But my influence goes far wider, in that I oversee all the cases, and coach my advocates in their investigations and in their advocacy – since every child in every case is different, every volunteer assigned to each case is different, as are the circumstances that bring each child to our attention. In order to effectively and efficiently supervise my advocates, I need to know who my volunteers are. I learn what their strengths are, what they find challenging in this hidden aspect of society, what their motivations are, and in what way they feel appreciated. I learn about their own pasts, their family situations, their goals, and what skills they bring to the table.
One aspect of my job is training new volunteers. We have to take well-meaning people from all walks of life, and give them the skills they’ll need in 6 short weeks to be able to advocate for children who may have come from horrendous and heartbreaking circumstances. This is one of the few volunteer opportunities where you don’t get the warm fuzzy feelings every time you do it. We see difficult things. We come into a child’s life after something traumatic has happened to them, and have to be able to step outside of our instinctual and emotional reactions in order to make sure they are not scarred for life from it.
Recently I was able to teach one of the training sessions that I have not had the opportunity to teach before. What was so fascinating about monitoring the online portion of that week’s training was that there’s a consecutive series of exercises that teaches volunteers how to think differently about the people we’ll be working with and examining our preconceived notions and prejudices. The exercises begin by giving two different lenses we view through while doing this work.
The first lens is the deficit-lens. What is missing, or what is “wrong.” We might look at a family’s situation and see that mom and/or dad are on drugs, or that their house does not have electricity, or that they do not have the things we have, or that the parents have a volatile relationship. This way of looking at our work runs the danger of being judgmental, short-sighted, and superficial. In order to have an idea of what is “wrong” with someone or some situation, we have to have an idea in our mind about what is “right,” and that idea usually comes from either our own experiences, or common social perception.
The other lens we can use is a strengths-based lens. This is where we switch our focus around – it’s not that we don’t see what’s wrong, we just don’t focus on it. In the midst of all that we might think is wrong, what are some things that might be beneficial? Maybe it’s that mom and dad are together. Or that one of the parents has a job. Or that there’s a roof over their heads. Maybe in one of our conversations with the family, we hear someone mention something that tells us they still have hope, or they demonstrate some sort of determination or resilience. These are all strengths that we can use as assets that may motivate this family to take the necessary – although difficult – steps to get their children back. After all, a child loves their parents – no matter what they’ve done, or not done. Separating a child from their parents is traumatic, no matter what the circumstances are.
We can then highlight those strengths and point them out to the family to show them that we’re not out to get them. We can recommend services for the family that builds upon their strengths, so they can then get the resources they need in order to be able to care for their children in a healthy way.
Another part of the training we have new volunteers go through is all about trauma. Our curriculum was just updated, so we’re only about 3 months into teaching new volunteers about the impacts of trauma. Because of the exponential growth in the science of trauma and its impact throughout society, trauma-informed anything is all the rage. We’ve been sending our volunteers to various trainings across the state to learn about the impacts of trauma on children in all the facets of their lives, so it was only fitting that our new curriculum added some introductory information about it.
One aspect in the trauma training that’s relatively new for most people is that while we focus on the children to whom we are assigned, it’s helpful to recognize that the conditions that brought these children into care more often than not also stem from trauma. It’s pretty eye-opening for people to realize that the reasons that a parent may do drugs is far more complicated than a simple “choice.” Once our new volunteers move from the deficit / judgement perspective to the strengths perspective, they see that an addict isn’t someone who just made poor choices, but is rather reacting to a life of trauma the only way they know how, or trying to escape from the lasting effects of that trauma.
If the children for whom we advocate, because of whatever level of neglect or trauma they have experienced, need intensive and various levels of therapy followed by educational interventions, and specific behavioral correction techniques, why would it be any different for the parents of these children to only need minor interventions to heal from the traumas that they have experienced??
Some of the most successful programs that we see our parents go through are longer term, in-patient substance abuse treatment programs. The reason they’re so successful is because they include counseling as part of the treatment program, as well as teaching life skills – life skills that may or may not have been taught to that parent – ever.
They learn how to write a resume. How to find a job, and how to pay their bills. They learn how to find a vehicle, and how to find housing. All while learning how to recover from their addiction, and while going through counseling, which addresses their own traumas, and helps them relearn how to think about those traumas, and function outside the definitions of victimhood and pain they’ve lived in their whole lives.
And these people regain custody of their children! They come out of these programs better and stronger than they ever were before. We see time and time again that addressing the trauma in both the parents and the children leads to a healthier and restored families.
I pour myself into my job. The scope, caliber and sheer quantity of the work that we do, collectively as a team, is mind-blowing. We are most certainly short-staffed, and we definitely have a shortage of volunteers to represent the number of children that keep coming to the system. What that means for me, is that there are children who come into the system who do not have an advocate. So not only do I supervise the volunteers who are assigned to children, I’m responsible for recruiting new volunteers, and then I have to visit the children who do not have an advocate in order to effectively still advocate for them in court.
As staff, we really don’t have time to do the same caliber of investigation that a volunteer would be able to do for a child. We still have to visit them, and write a staff report in order to represent the child’s best wishes and the child’s desires to the court.
When I get to work, I open my email, check my calendar, and put my cell phone aside. I am 150% all about work. I don’t handle personal business, I don’t think about lunch, I don’t take care of personal obligations. Until 5pm, I give all that I am to the mission of our program. I do everything I can to build relationships with my volunteers – which is a key retention tool, by the way – and to ensure that my volunteers get the information they need in order to properly advocate for the children in their cases.
There are days where I don’t have enough time to finish everything that needs to be done at work, so I bring work home. Even on the days I don’t bring work home, I have to be available by phone in case of an emergency.
It’s a lot of work. The court system can’t support itself as it is now – there’s not enough staff in any of our offices, there’s not enough social workers, and there’s definitely a shortage of mental health providers for both children and parents. And it doesn’t appear that there’s any relief on the horizon. This is mentally taxing. And I would be absolutely fried if I couldn’t see the importance or the purpose in what we do. So many people in this line of work end up suffering from secondary trauma – that’s why you see so many people leave jobs dealing with child welfare after such a short amount of time; it has the potential to be incredibly draining.
Knowing who I am has been the most important factor in all of this. I know that I’ve been equipped to deal with what I see at work, and have been given the ability to see – not so much a reason for why these things happen, but an end goal, so to speak. I don’t get emotionally caught up in the injustice of what these children have endured, but I focus my energy on the healing and restoration process. If I lose sight of the most important thing – the relationships – then I can’t do my job.
If I don’t know who my volunteers are, then I can’t match them to the best cases for their skills and abilities. I won’t be able to encourage them in the best way, or show our appreciation for the incredible work they do. And if I can’t do any of these things, then they will not stay with our program!
If we don’t know the children we represent, how can we properly advocate for them?
What if there is an element of our callings that is dependent upon our relationships with others? What if our callings have everything to do with our relationships with one another?
For those who don’t know, my husband is part of a motorcycle club. On Father’s Day, one of his brothers in the club passed away. It was totally unexpected, and was – and still is – completely devastating to everyone who knew him.
Within minutes of finding out, I called his fiancé. I spent every day for the next week with her, except one. I didn’t want her to be alone.
I didn’t care that I filled my gas tank 4 times that week. I didn’t care that I took a couple days off work. I didn’t care that I didn’t get home until late every single night. I didn’t care that I pushed all my other responsibilities off. I didn’t care about the money we spent making sure that the family didn’t have to cook food while they grieved. Nothing was more important than making sure she had someone with her, that was there for her. Not the family, not the club, just her.
In that week that I spent with her, I made sure I wasn’t distracted. If she just wanted to sit on the porch in the quiet, that’s what we did. If she wanted to cry, I held her. If she wanted to see pictures, we looked at pictures. I didn’t ask her questions, I didn’t pry, or push her into doing anything. I was just there with her as she lived out the process of gaining understanding that her life would never look anything like she expected, or hoped, dreamed, or planned.
Because I know her, I could recognize how bad she hurt with this loss. Because I know her, I could tell when she was running on autopilot, taking care of things that needed to be done, but she had no desire to do; I could also tell by the look in her eyes when it was time for us to retreat, when it was time to cry, when it was time to distract and laugh, and when it was time to leave.
There’s a saying, “If you can’t find the light, I will sit with you in the dark.” That’s what we did. I held her hand in the dark.
My presence with her that week was not just for comfort, but for protection. Not to protect her from harm, but protect her heart from those who might be around who might not know those things about her that make her uniquely herself: her gentleness and soft-spokenness, her need for quiet spaces to process things, her dreams.
During that week, I offered no words of encouragement, no platitudes, no promises. I don’t recall saying very much of anything to her. I offered no profound wisdom on the afterlife, because it wasn’t my argument to have – the grief and anger she experienced could only be answered by God. And I definitely didn’t tell any stories that turned her attention, or anyone else’s, back onto me.
There’s this thing called “conversational narcissism” that all too often becomes part of our dialogues monologues with grieving people. In an effort to let a grieving friend know how empathetic we are to what they’re going through, we monopolize the encounter with a story that draws all the attention onto ourselves, and runs the risk of alienating our friend.) I didn’t quote scripture, and I never mentioned God or Jesus Christ. What I did do was give her a safe place to grieve in the midst of her storm.
This brought to mind an old story. As I walked one day with my father, he suddenly asked me, “Besides the song of the birds, do you hear anything else?”
“Yes,” I answered, “the noise of a wagon.”
“Excellent,” he said, “and it’s empty.”
I asked him, “Empty? And how do you know, if we haven’t seen it?”
“Very easy,” he answered, “because of the noise it makes.”
Since then, when I see someone talking too much, bragging of what he has, or what he has experienced, and belittling others, I seem to hear my father’s voice:
“The emptier the wagon is, the greater the noise it makes.”
It took me quite a while to recover from that week, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I poured myself into my friend that week, just as I pour myself into my work. It’s who I am. There was never a question about where I was supposed to be that week. Like Dante talked about last week when speaking of God’s mercy in Lamentations, God says I see where you are, and I am with you in it.
This blew my mind, because this is who I am in Christ – I see where you are, and I am with you in it. How else could I spend so much intimate time with a grieving family? How else could I give everything that I am not only to my friend, but also to her fiancé’s grieving family – none of whom I’d met before? I can only do this because I know where my strength comes from.
See, if I try to do these things in my own power, my own self-centered human nature – no matter how selfless I may be oriented – will in any situation try to turn it back around so the focus is on me. If I try to do things in my own power, then I want to fix things, rather than have someone be healed. Ultimately, I’ll end up bleeding all over those I’m trying to help. See, I have to be aware of my own brokenness in order to allow Christ to use me. This is part of the cruciform for me.
When we’re pouring ourselves out, we can’t give someone what we don’t have – I can’t pour out grace and mercy and love unless Christ is in me. Pouring ourselves out takes work; sometimes more work than we are humanly capable of. That work may not be easy, and it is rarely pretty.
Part of knowing who I am is recognizing that if I continue to pour myself out like that without a break, without a chance to regroup, then I will be pouring from an empty cup. And if I don’t know who I am, then my attempts at compassion or empathy flow out of my own brokenness, where I would try to “fix” everything for everyone, or be serving my own ambitions. I definitely would not be paying attention to what God is saying or doing at all – or even be able to recognize him.
Since we are part of our relationships, we can apply this principle to any of our relationships, whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, or with our family.
If I’ve learned anything over the years, and more so in the last year, it is that I have to protect my relationships. I could not protect those relationships unless I knew who I was; my identity had to first be solidified. If I don’t know who I am, then I can’t put up boundaries.
Marriage, for example. Next month my husband and I will be celebrating our 15th anniversary. We are best friends – now and since we’ve known each other. He holds the most significant chunk of my history, more so than anyone else I know; more than any friends I have, and more than anyone in my family. I left home 23 years ago, and my husband left home 27 years ago. We are significantly different people now than we were when we left our parents’ homes.
We’ve been through some really rough times in the last 15 years, and we’ve seen each other through what some would say are the most difficult struggles a person can go through. And we have grown together. This past weekend we got to spend 14 hours in the car together which gave us the opportunity to talk more than we’ve had a chance to do in a while. I told him that it was bothering me that I used to love to read and write, but now I had no desire to do either. This was something that had been vexing me for about a year, and I was finally just able to get over the guilt in order to vocalize it. My husband looks at me, and without skipping a beat, tells me that I read and write all day at my job, so my desire to do these things is being met by my job. I was flabbergasted.
There are things that my husband knows about me that no other human being knows, and there are things that I know about him that no other human being knows. We have established a boundary around our marriage that is so sacred that we do not allow anyone else inside our bubble. It wasn’t always like this, though, we had to learn who we were in order for us to mutually set up this boundary.
I have historically not had a great track record in the “friendships with other women” department. But my friend Brenda is my girl. She can hold me accountable like no one else, and there are things that she and I can talk about with one another that we don’t share with other women. There is a realness that offers safety in our relationship, where I can go when I need a break.
My friendship with Brenda has been a guidepost for how I’ve shaped my relationships with other women since she and I met. The grace, support, and safety that Brenda offers me is what I set as the foundation for the relationships with other women. When pouring myself into the lives of other women, this is what I pray to offer them – love, no judgement, and safety.
There are other people in my life who offer these things in certain settings. But all of these people, we know each other. We trust each other.
When we’re pouring ourselves out, I’ve had to learn to be mindful of where I can get replenished, restrengthened, and where I can recover. My husband and Brenda are two people who, when I’m in their presence, I can recover. There are others, but those two are my go-to people.
I’ve learned that if I try to go to other people for my recovery, then it’s the equivalent of throwing my pearls before swine – they don’t understand, and they don’t know me well enough to recognize what it is I’m seeking or what I need.
It took me a while to learn that I can’t just get back from anyone all that I have given. What was poured out of me was God, so what I must be refilled with is also God. There are only a few people who I have the confidence and trust in to be able to pour back into me that which I need.
As I’ve learned who I am, and as I’ve learned my self-worth, I’ve learned to protect my trusted relationships, and I have built other relationships upon the models of those relationships. I could not learn how to respect others until I learned respect in my marriage.
I’ve learned to protect myself as my self-worth has solidified. And I’ve learned to spend my time around those who feed my soul, not eat it. For me, protection looks like not giving everyone close to me access to every part of me. Proximity does not equal access. I cannot go to just anyone to refill me, or to help me recover when I am drained. All too often, I’ve gone somewhere, or talked to someone to recover, and end up encountering that conversational narcissism I mentioned early, which ends up draining me even more.
I don’t want this to sound like a “circle the wagons” discussion; there is an inner and outer focus. For the inner, we are to know who we are. In knowing who we are, identify how we are best restored, and pursue that. But on the outer component, allow the foundation of our identity and self-worth to transform the way we see others. Once we know our own identity, it’s incredibly difficult to see someone through a deficit lens.
I’ll end with a quote from Henri Nouwen: “Compassion grows within the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all the walls which might have kept you separate, across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.”