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Beginnings, Middles, & Ends
By Ogden Rogers, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW
(Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Ogden Rogers' book, Beginnings, Middles, & Ends: Sideways Stories on the Art & Soul of Social Work.)
There are these chestnuts, which we have in social work, that are so cliché, and yet invite us into considerations of great depth. “Begin where the client is,” “go with the defense,” “content and process,” “person in environment,” “Beginnings, middles, and ends.” There are a good number of others, and we’ve all heard them often. They easily roll off the tongues of those of us who dwell in this profession of professional “do gooders.” They are the headings we find in the opening paragraphs of our textbooks. They are the pithy little comments we throw out as we walk down some busy hall. They serve us in many ways.
They help us signal each other from across the table of interdisciplinary team meetings. They are the secret passwords of our club. They are our wink of recognition. We may come from different agencies, practices, states, or even countries, but as the meeting proceeds, we know who around the table is one of “us.” Thus identified, we can begin to engage whatever cause brought us to this meeting, safe in the knowledge that others in the room share our certain understandings. Others share our values. Others share a sense of vision of where this all might go. Together, we will look out upon this table, and together we will begin to “work” it.
These chestnuts help us center ourselves as we begin the difficult work of a helping relationship. Not only cues to outside collaborators, they are often the stuff of the quick and quiet internal dialogues that take place outside of the client’s view. Behind our eyes, we remind ourselves and observe ourselves as we observe others. We remember to listen to the words, and also watch the behavior. We remember to listen to the words and watch their effect, on ourselves, on the other, on this relationship. We observe where we are. In the beginning, in the middle, in an end, there are tasks to be engaged. There is a process to follow. We are not lost in what can be a chaotic jungle of life.
They comfort us, these chestnuts, for social work is always about being in the middle. And the middle can be a lonely place to be. We are always guests in another’s house. Physicians and nurses live in the hospital. The social worker is the one person in the hospital who brings the “outside in.” The social worker is the one most concerned about how patients’ lives will be when they go home. A home that is also not ours, but the patients’. The teacher owns the classroom. The social worker in the school knows the demands of children’s learning spring well beyond four walls. The social worker is the ambassador of “other,” outside the schoolhouse system. The genius of the social worker is that she or he is always between things. The master of the art appreciates the muddle which is life and demands a profession that dances down a razor’s edge. But such a place is lonely. There are few who understand this art, the products of which are so freely given away. But the chestnuts can comfort us. In the middle of whatever moment we might be, when they come to our focused mind, we know that they are the words of those who have gone before us. They will be the words of those who will come after. We are never alone with these words with us.
The chestnuts are also seeds. And like seeds, at first they seem so small and simple. And also like seeds, they are the stuff that is so packed with the vitality of our profession. As we take them into ourselves, we are nourished. As we grow in our social work lives, we will come from time to time and reflect upon one of these chestnuts. So simple, at first.
Yet as we ponder more, there is depth and complexity that they reveal. Something as simple as “content and process” enriches our consideration of some boundary we discover somewhere in the world. The admission to the nursing home. The conflict in a foster home. The diagnosis in a clinic. Waves and sand making beaches, ever moving, ever shifting, and yet so there. The chestnuts sometimes clarify our thoughts, and at other times, stretch them into ever more complex places, as a tendril reaches delicately into space.
In this past season of conflict, fear, and anger, I have spent many hours with the weight of one of my chestnuts, “neutrality.” As the clouds of war loomed, I concerned myself most with those who would be most vulnerable. Inside my home, and outside on my street, there were often those who grew angry and confused with my position. They sought my company in their marches for, or against. How easy, I thought, it would be to join a side. I would be right, in someone’s eyes, no matter which way I turned. But there are beginnings, middles, and ends. And I had to steel myself to provide others shelter from the storm. I focused on how best to be for those caught in the middle, and “did what needs to be done.”
How wonderful that we have these chestnuts. A pocketful of them will carry us through the long hike of a social workers’ life. When we are confused, they will settle us. When we are hungry, they will nourish us, and make us grow. When we are lonely, we know that we can, and always will, share them.
They are rich and sweet. Have some, won’t you?
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.