by Addison Cooper, LCSW
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, an unlikely hero–a hobbit named Frodo Baggins–must journey across a treacherous terrain to destroy a tool of great evil. Frodo is sacrificing his health and well-being and is risking his life, in fact, to help the world escape a time of great evil. Although most of his contemporaries do not realize the magnitude of his work, he is surrounded and supported by a fellowship of a few close friends. One of them, another hobbit named Samwise Gamgee, is his dearest friend. On one occasion, Frodo is overburdened by the weight of his task. He collapses, unable to continue his journey and unable to go on with his world-helping work.
I wonder if there’s a parallel to draw between Frodo and social workers. We are engaged in very important work that often goes unseen. We’re often unassuming, yet carrying heavy emotional burdens (and sometimes working in risky environments), in an attempt to bring some healing to the world. And sometimes, like Frodo, we’re overburdened. We collapse. We feel as if the world is on our shoulders, and we feel as if we can’t go on.
In the moment that Frodo collapses, his dear friend is by his side. Samwise realizes that the burden Frodo carries is one that only Frodo can carry. And so, thinking quickly and demonstrating his dedication, Samwise declares, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” He stoops down, lifts his fallen friend, and carries him further along on his journey. It’s a beautiful depiction of the support that friends can offer, and one of the most powerful and iconic scenes in the trilogy.
It also reminded me of one of the truths of life as a social worker. At times we’re like Frodo, the unassuming hero on a quest to help the world. Other times, we’re certainly like Frodo, the fallen pilgrim, completely depleted. In the movie, Frodo physically collapses. Sometimes social workers do, too, but this feeling might also look like depression, or burnout, a sense of listlessness, or pervasive doubt about whether what we’re doing actually matters. Like Frodo, we might not be able to lift ourselves up. We might need help.
I recently heard a speaker who attributed a quote to the social work professor and author Brené Brown. She said essentially, “One of the great lies is the belief that we have to thrive on our own, that there’s a distinction between the helpers and the helped. The truth is, we are both of them.”
It rings true for me. We’re social workers primarily because we want to touch other people’s lives and make a positive impact in the world. Our motivations might be varied. Some want to give back in response to help that they received from social workers. Others are motivated by religious, ethical, or moral guidelines. Still others like the way they feel when they think of themselves as helpers.
But as we get into the work, we find that it is often hard. Clients make choices that have painful consequences. Clients, supervisors, and colleagues say hurtful things. Work bleeds over into our personal lives. At some point, we are tired and fallen, and we need someone to help us up. Just as Brené Brown said, the distinction between “helpers” and “helped” is a false one. Just like Frodo, we can’t do this great work without support.
So how can we stay relatively healthy and happy in our work? Don’t go it alone! Prioritize the different roles of your identity. Schedule time every week to spend with people who replenish you, whether it’s friends, spouse, or family. They can’t carry your burden for you, but they can (and they want to!) carry you.
Sometimes, though, our friends aren’t quite skilled or energetic enough to carry us. That’s okay, too, but it does introduce a second option. I’ve often thought that social workers could benefit from seasons of therapy, even if they’re not going through a crisis. A therapist will be familiar with the kinds of situations you encounter in your work and is trained in a way that your friends might not be. You don’t need to be having a crisis to make use of therapy, by the way. An athlete sees a doctor not because she’s sick, but because she uses her muscles to make her living and needs to be in top form. We social workers use our hearts and minds to make our living. So it would make sense that we’d need them to be in top form, not just getting them attended to when we notice a problem.
Whether it’s friends, family, or therapists, remember—we can’t do it alone. But we don’t have to.
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.