On Friday, I had the opportunity to “present” to about 70 social workers in Georgia for a talk about the Ethical Mandate to Self-Care. I write “present”, because it was more like I had the chance to be present with them as we all talked about times when it was hard to take care of ourselves in the midst of a profession that puts other above self, so much so that it is explicitly stated in our ethical code.
It is right there: “Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest.”
So we all sat there, this bunch of social workers, and remembered times when we would skip lunch one more time, or stay late, or take that phone call which might be an emergency. We read through scenarios about professionals who were burning out, neglecting themselves, neglecting family. We were present with each other because one of the ways that we can all learn to care for ourselves is to find that community of others to talk with, to complain with, to share our joys and our sorrows.
And I keep coming back to the part about being present with because that is the piece that keeps standing out to me today as I write.
Yes, there is a balance that needs to be struck. When we are doing too much, we suffer, our work suffers. In those moments we are not our best selves for our own self, for our families and loved ones, and certainly not for our clients/patients. So we need to rest, to take care of ourselves, to “sit a spell” as we might say in the South.
But there is something else.
Today, Sunday, I also had the opportunity to be present for my wife’s sermon at a local church. The gospel reading for today was from Mark 6:30–56. The reading starts with the disciples coming back to Jesus after he had sent them out, to preach, to heal, to take the good news to others. These disciples return and the first thing that Jesus tells them is this:
“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (v. 31)
Or as I would translate into Southern, “Let’s get away a bit and sit a spell.”
It is the right thing to do, to find rest, to find time alone or with a group of trusted friends who understand. There is deep wisdom in the call to silence, to retreat.
But that is not where the story ends.
The reading for this Sunday, as the lectionary is sometimes apt to do, skips over two other stories to pick up at the end with getting away across the water. The stories over which the verses skip are the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water.
My wife was not inclined to skip over those stories, especially about the feeding of the five thousand.
Because in this story, even though Jesus has just told the disciples “Let’s get away a bit,” the crowd follows them, even gets ahead of them, to meet them in this deserted place where they were trying to find retreat. Jesus continues teaching there, late into the day. Eventually, the disciples realize that they are all in an isolated place with no food. And even though many of us would be inclined as the disciples were to send the folks away to find their own food, when these disciples ask Jesus what to do, he simply says “Feed them.”
So instead of complaining about being hungry or tired, Jesus tells them to look around, to see what they have, and start there.
To me, this is a call to be present. Because when we are present, when we intentionally attend to what is happening around us, not from a place of fear or a place of regret, it is then that we can see the miracle.
In my time with those social workers on Friday, we reminded each other that when we are operating from places of anxiety, our own or the anxiety around us, we are not our best selves and not in the best place for our clients/patients. So in what may be a strange move in an ethics seminar, we stopped. I rang a bell, and we attended to our breath. We did not try to make the breath longer or shorter, but just found it where it was. We worked to be present in that very moment. We said to ourselves:
May we be free from suffering.
May we be as happy and healthy as it is possible for us to be.
May we have ease of being.
For those of you familiar with these or similar words, you may recognize these as a compassion or lovingkindness meditation. And in that way, we started with wishing this for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our clients/patients, for difficult coworkers or managers, for our agencies, and for our communities.
May all be free from suffering.
May all be as happy and healthy as it is possible for them to be.
May all have ease of being.
And then . . . because we are social workers after all, we made an action plan.
Because in the end, all of this self-care business, our work to be present as clinicians and caseworkers, or your own work wherever you are, it is not simply so that we can feel more peaceful and calm. It is so that, without the distortions of fear or regret, we can see clearly where we are and what needs to happen next.
So in the gospel reading for today, in this feeding of the five thousand, Jesus simply asks the disciples, “What do you have?” I read this as the call to be present.
The disciples leave. They ask around this multitude of people, men, women, and children. They return to Jesus. What has been given are five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed what they had, broke it, and began giving it away.
Now depending on your tolerance for miracles, you can either see this as some sort of divine intervention that made these five loaves and two fish be able to feed a multitude. But if you do not traffic in divine intervention, you can at least acknowledge that once everyone stopped panicking, they figured out a way. As is often the case, in our fear or in our regret, we miss the miracle.
As for me, I am glad to have had the deep privilege to serve alongside many other folks who serve, to listen and to guide, and to work to be present with them. I also know that all of this self-care, while certainly important, should not take us away from being present with ourselves and with our client/patients.
There is a call to be present, so that we do not miss the miracle when it happens.