by Addison Cooper, LCSW
Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life is an annual tradition for many. I watched it for the first time this past year. Many readers will be familiar with the story. For those who haven’t seen it, George Bailey operates a building and loan business, and his goal is to help others manage to afford to own their own homes and, by doing so, to escape the poorly-run housing projects of Potter, the cruel local millionaire. Bailey has sacrificed his dreams—and his honeymoon—to keep this project alive. Earlier in life, he has lost his hearing while saving his brother’s life.
The film finds him suicidal on Christmas Eve 1945. His uncle, who is also his business partner, has misplaced a large sum of money. George is criminally liable for the loss and may be arrested. He has sought help from the millionaire, but the millionaire tells George that he would be worth more dead than alive.
Bereft of hope, and seemingly burnt out from years of trying to do good, George gets drunk and prepares to jump off a bridge. Before he can jump, though, he is distracted by Clarence Odbody, his guardian angel. Clarence jumps instead, and George’s good nature again shows itself as he dives in, not to kill himself, but to save Clarence.
George comments that it would have been better had he never been born. Clarence gives him glimpses into what the world would be like if George had never been born, and we see along with George that the world without him is a much darker place. Inspired by the knowledge of what he has helped to cause, and reminded of the beauty in his life, George begs for another chance at life. He returns home and is lovingly surrounded by friends and family, who have all come together to replace the missing money, preventing George from being arrested.
I wonder if social workers are particularly vulnerable to feeling bereft of hope and burnt out, like George Bailey. I remember reading, years ago, that the average turnover time in social work is about two years. Some of that turnover is due to promotions, advancement, and intentional life decisions—but I imagine that much of it comes about when social workers become disillusioned, distressed, or in despair.
Like George Bailey, we’ve made intentional choices to put some of our dreams on hold—and to forgo some of them—to pursue what we believe is a greater good. We have chosen to accept positions with smaller salaries than other degreed professionals expect, and with that choice, we’ve chosen to work long hours, sometimes in stressful situations. We do this because we think it’s right for us to do it, and we take joy—very deep joy—when our clients are able to own their own lives, escaping the cycles that sometimes perpetuate suffering. It’s probably the same joy that George took when he helped people escape the millionaire’s tenements.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work. Clients make poor choices. Or, like George, we find ourselves not only unthanked, but despised and hated. How many social workers find themselves questioning whether it was worth it to pursue this line of work? Was it worth it to make less than our peers? Was it worth it to expose ourselves to so much human sadness and suffering? Would it have been better had we never chosen to pursue the life of social work? I suspect these unspoken questions are common in our minds. I think they’re part of the reason why social workers burn out. We’re only human.
But what if we had a moment like George had? What if we could see ourselves and our work from a much more comprehensive perspective? What if we could see the direct and indirect impact we’ve had in the lives of our clients, and their circles of influence? The lives we help toward wholeness go on to touch many other lives. The impact that social workers have in the world is shared—our clients and our colleagues participate in making that impact—but it is also measureless. George Bailey saved his brother’s life; his brother went on to save hundreds of lives in World War II. Who knows what great things your clients will accomplish on the path that you’ve helped them recover?
We don’t often get to see life in whole. We see life from one vantage point, and for better or worse, our vantage point is limited and sometimes skewed. But as we end one year and start another, please take these true statements to heart: You did not make a mistake when you chose to be a social worker. Even if your initial idealizations didn’t turn out the way you’d expected, you have put yourself in a position where you can always be a force for healing and wholeness. It is wonderful when lives are rebuilt. You have chosen to be a part of making this a wonderful life.
Don’t give up.
Happy new year.
Addison Cooper, LCSW, is the founder of Adoption at the Movies (www.adoptionlcsw.com), where he invites families to use film to engage each other in important conversations. Find him at www.facebook.com/AdoptionAtTheMovies or on Twitter @AddisonCooper.