Monday, March 4, 2024

Finding joy in our work and our lives

By David S. Prescott, LICSW

Reviewing the blog posts and ATSA communications for the membership (The Wire, the Catalyst newsletter) of the past few weeks provides a wonderful snapshot of the work we all do. From risk assessment to protective factors, and empirically sound treatment, it’s all in there. As we’ve said before, the people in this field can be real superheroes.

Of course, there are topics that can be difficult to talk about. A recent survey found many of us experiencing the signs and symptoms of burnout despite having good overall self-care practices. Likewise, last week’s blog, about imposter syndrome  generated lots of agreement (ironically, almost all through private channels).

None of these topics address the joy that can be found in doing this work. It is easy to overlook and often fleeting.

If I may share an example: In the mid-1990s I worked in a residential treatment program for adolescents. I had provided treatment to a young man who had caused significant harm to his siblings.  They had all been horribly abused by their stepfather. He had been placed in another program that was shut down by the state because of rampant sexual abuse by the staff against him and others. Working with him was a challenge. Privately, some staff had even given him the lighthearted nickname of “the Hurricane.” We worked to put his life back together, address his own victimization, his actions towards his brother, and everything one might expect. After much work, we were able to step him down to a program much closer to his home.

In the hours after he left the program and I was preparing for more cases to come my way, my supervisor said, “Nice work, David. You never violated the relationship.” She was right, but it would take many hours for the full impact to set in. I had focused for so long on the tasks of treatment and the various case-management and documentation needs, that I had forgotten the sheer joy of the work itself. I had never considered the joy that comes with providing a relationship centered on helping the other to reach their full potential. And I had never considered the joy of taking one step closer in the direction of being a better therapist, citizen, and man. It’s fundamental to the reason any of us do this work: we want to help, and it feels good to get it right.

Why is it that we don’t discuss joy in our work more often? Is it because it’s not always so well defined? I went to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, and its first definition was “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Personally, I wonder about some of this. What kind of success, fortune, or possessions? Is this a materialistic sort of joy? Is there more? Maybe our difficulty defining it contributes to our difficulty talking about it? Maybe we don’t talk about joy because so much of it is beyond words? Maybe it’s because we often bond with one another talking about our pains, fears, and misfortunes? Maybe it’s because the joy we experience is often so fleeting? (After all, the joy in the case above was time-limited by my need to open another case the same day!)

There could be many reasons why we don’t always focus on joy as much as we could. After all, too many of us work in joyless environments with clients who have never experienced joy. Is it too easy for us to become numb and jobless as a part of working in close proximity to abuse? Do we lack the skills not just to self-regulate, but to co-regulate with others as a partial result of bearing witness to suffering? Is returning to a place of joy a skill that we can develop? I believe it is.

I watched ATSA Past President Dr. Tyffani Dent give a speech to some colleagues while accepting an award a few years ago. She talked about her experiences of “Black joy,” those moments somewhere between fulfillment and ecstasy that she and others experience simply by virtue of being Black. Despite the horrific legacy of racism, this Black joy has never gone away. I came away with the impression that it is indestructible, at least from the outside. If I’ve read correctly between the lines, Tyffani actively and intentionally maintains an awareness that joy is possible, and takes effective action to find it, with others, in her life. Can we all do something similar?

As the reader will notice, I do not profess to having the answers, only questions. If I may be permitted some lighthearted humor, no one knows better than me that I will never directly experience Black joy. But just being in its presence for those moment gave me deep hope for the future. How can we become aware of the possibilities for joy all around us? Probably more accurately, how can we return to our places of joy more frequently and deeply? Despite the challenges of our jobs, the work itself provides many opportunities for joy.

No comments:

Post a Comment