by Denice Goodrich Liley
“I want to help people” is a common call to social work. Frequently, social workers cite a desire to make the world better, make change happen, or being a natural helper as motivating them to pursue the profession of social work. I am sure I have not been an agent of change in the world as much as social work has influenced me. I can honestly say social work has changed me. I am a better person thanks to social work.
I did not enter social work through conventional ways of experiencing a formal helping relationship or knowledge that I was good at helping people. I knew really very little of poverty, hardship, or differences in my sheltered eighteen years in a conservative homogenous community. I thought that life was good and most all people had good lives. I had no serious thoughts or explanations about individuals that did not have lives similar to mine. As a young college student, I was “captured” by some social work faculty. The choice to enter social work as a young student was heavily influenced by the energy, enthusiasm, and passion of faculty who had been part of the War on Poverty. I learned of possibilities.
My entrance or “why” I am a social worker is important. It continues to have a daily influence on me. Social work makes me a better person. I have more questions than answers, thanks to social work. I am learning something new about the human conditions of life every day, thanks to social work. Social work has made me an open person. I am open to possibilities.
Some people learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten (Fulghum, 1986). I, on the other hand, have learned through social work how much I do not know. I have no great answers, but oh, so many questions. As I reflect on how social work has changed me, here are a few of the things I have learned through social work:
- Human relationships are baffling.
- Many people just do not know.
- Bad things can happen to anyone.
- Good people do experience horrible things.
- Life is precious.
- Life is not fair.
- One second, one decision, can change life forever.
- Nothing stays the same.
- Empathy is necessary.
- Understanding can be very hard.
- There are not answers to all questions.
- Resources make life easier.
- Most people care and do the best they can.
- Everyone deserves respect.
- We are all vulnerable.
- Choice is complex. Choice is rarely between a “good” choice and a “bad” choice, but weighing horrible alternatives only to pick what is believed to be the least horrible.
- Change is hard.
- Today is no guarantee for tomorrow.
- Doing one’s best may not be good enough.
- Some things can not be undone or a get a “do over.”
- “Those people” may be you or me, and there is not much difference.
- “Should,” any “…ism,” “why,” and “if only” are best avoided if at all possible.
- Listening is hard, but hearing what is being said is much harder.
- Honesty is not always the best policy - sometimes silence is golden.
- If you do not have something nice to say, silence may be best.
- Sometimes one must say the obvious.
- What is said cannot be taken back, especially if witnessed by others.
- Judgment helps no one.
- Forgiving is hard, but forgetting is harder.
These tenets help me to stay in a “not knowing” stance with the people I work with. They help me in my relationships as I maneuver the world. These statements assist me in my personal life as a friend, daughter, sister, spouse, and parent. They help me with my students and colleagues. These are my acknowledgments of what I have learned through social work. Social work changes me to be a better person. I am not only more “unknowing,” I am more open to the world.
Social work has
- Opened my eyes not only to the tragedies and hardships of people’s lives, but to the unbelievable kindness, resiliency in humans, and opportunities for change.
- Opened my mouth to speak up for those who can’t, to challenge others to stop before they speak, to engage in discussion on differences, and sometimes to say “NO” - what is being said is not appropriate.
- Opened my thinking to be okay that there are not answers to all questions, that I do not know why horrible things happen, to stop before I talk, and that change is possible through education.
- Opened my heart to have faith that change is possible, that most people care and will do what they believe is the right thing to do, and that social work does make a difference in this world.
Thanks to social work, the world is full of possibilities. And it is for this that social work makes me a better person every day!
Fulghum, R. (1986). All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. Random House: NY.
Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., LCSW, CSW-G, is an associate professor at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Liley teaches courses in social work practice, aging, health care, and end-of-life. Dr. Liley has been a licensed social worker for nearly 38 years and remains passionate about social work and possibilities.