by Ogden Rogers, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW
(Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from the book Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work, by Ogden Rogers. It is excerpted from the entry entitled, "The Welcome Lecture," which outlines risks and benefits in social work.)
I understand that you are interested in joining our club called “Social Work.” If you could spare a moment, I’d like to share some thoughts with you. You see, there are some risks and benefits in becoming a social worker, and I think one should consider them carefully before moving on....
It’s not easy to think like a social worker. There are perspectives one has to acquire that make the world forever more complicated.
The “bi-focal” vision thing has a lot of weight. Once you acquire it, it becomes very difficult ever to look at things the same way again. Social work is about facilitating the challenges and strengths of little systems—like people—with the challenges and strengths of big systems—like communities, governments, and countries. A man named Schwartz once said that social work is that place “where the individual and society reach out for one another.” Think about that. That’s a big idea.
So, you’re always thinking about at least two things at the same time. How to help both the little guy and society at the same time. One has to be able to think like a juggler, or a surfer, or any master of multiple dimensions in motion.
A man falls into a ditch and you help him out: you’ve helped a man out of a ditch. Another man falls into the ditch and you help him out: you’ve helped another man out of a ditch. Another man fall into a ditch and the social worker, reaching down to help the man, cries out to all those who will listen: “Hey, people! Folks keep falling into this ditch! Can we all get together to think about doing something about this? How about a bridge?! Or a tunnel?! Does this ditch need to be here? Could we lay a pipe in there and cover this thing up? Waddya all think?”
Sometimes, the streets where we walk are baking in the summer sun, and the asphalt sticks to your shoes. Sometimes the stuff that you walk in will be tracked into where you live. The people who live with you will need to know they will pay prices living with you.
Many folks do not walk through this life alone. The people you live with will have to know that you are also in a relationship with Social Work. “She” is a demanding lover who asks much of you. Sometimes, because of the boundaries of your practice, you will need to keep secrets from the people you love. This can be tough for you, and for them.
You will walk in from a long day with many burdens on your shoulders, and you will not be able to reveal all that weighs upon them to your lover. It will have to be enough that they know that it is weight that you have carried in from the day and belongs to your world of social work. You will not be able to share the details, only at best, the generalities.
Sometimes you will be the only thing in the world keeping somebody else alive. Your ego is the lending thread that supports a fragile hope in some desperate human being. That weekly appointment on Thursday is the only connection they have. The only thing right now that keeps them hanging on. Sometimes they will “stalk” you. Not with an intent to do you harm, but with the insecure need to see that you are still a permanent object in their life. If they drive around your house at night, it might creep out the people you live with. I remember my young son saying to me, “Daddy, that woman in the red Honda is driving around the house again.” “Oh that’s just somebody who’s watching out for daddy...she wants to make sure I’m home and okay.”
If you do social work right, few people will know about it. To be a social worker is always about giving it away. Making others feel and be empowered. Yes, it will be you who enters into the life of the Little Woman’s Chowder Society some Wednesday night. It will be you who asks the group what they think the problem is. It will be you who will explore with them solutions. It will be you who asks Mavis to speak up, and you who asks Mabel to wait a bit until Mavis is finished speaking her piece. It will be you who will re-invite Mabel back into the conversation. And then you will ask Shirley, always the quiet one, what she thinks. But it will be they who finally make the decisions, invent the objectives, and accomplish the tasks that will make them feel like the greatest thing since sliced bread.
When you drive home that night, you might roll down the window of your car and howl at the moon. It is the lonely wolf howl of the social worker celebrating success. No one will understand how you have influenced things, how you have done some “good” in the world.
When you do “it” right, Social Work is a feeling that is larger than your own life. Psychologists call this feeling “flow state.” You’ve probably experienced it, perhaps when you were raising your voice in song with a chorus, or making that consciously-unconscious excellent pass on the basketball court, or a golf swing, or preparing a “perfect” meal. “It” happens when you know what you know, and you do it (in the middle, with other people) without needing to know it... (yet, you “know it”).
Perhaps the next day, you might run into someone else in the club, another social work colleague, and casually note what you did the previous evening, and how you were “in the zone.” If they are wise and experienced, they will nod, and smile, and validate your efforts. “It’s so cool when that happens,” they might say. “It’s Social Work.”
Read the rest of this essay and others by Ogden Rogers in his book, Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work.
Ogden W. Rogers, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work at The University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been a clinician, consultant, educator, and storyteller. Dr. Rogers began his social work career in community and adult psychiatry in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He’s worked in emergency and critical-care medicine, disaster mental health, and mental health program delivery and evaluation in both public and private auspices. In more recent years, he’s been actively involved with the American Red Cross International Services Division concerning human rights in armed conflict. When asked about how he got involved with making a career in social work, he smiled and said, “That reminds me of a story....”