Today a social work colleague asked me how I find my community-based work with individuals experiencing chronic homelessness to be “sustainable.” The question was not about caseload size, psychosocial acuity, time management or self-care. The question was not actually a question at all, but an assessment that my role is futile and an assumption that the vulnerable population with whom I work is largely incapable of “success.”
There are days in social work when I feel like a peacock at a greyhound race. On these days, the perception of professional failure seeps deep into my very soul and my heart is so heavy that it somehow deflates my lungs. Yet even on such days my role is fruitful and the marginalized population with whom I work is largely capable of success, if only I remember how to measure it.
Success in social work is not measured in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights or in cups of coffee (unless the social worker happens to be in the East Village circa de the early 1990’s). It is not measured in outcomes, in data, in funding or in policy.
Success in social work is hope in the shadow of heartache. It is the humility that oozes from profound suffering. It is quiet, almost imperceptible gratitude. Success in social work is courage in the face of terror. It is the action that emerges from adversity. It is small, unnoticed acts of kindness.
Success in social work is generosity amid dearth. It is the grace that shines from an overlooked sprit. It is the acceptance of alliance. Success in social work is contentment of circumstance. It is the connection that binds one human spirit to another. It is inspiration.
Success in social work is honesty to spite judgment. It is the perseverance that beats from a spurred heart. It is integrity revealed. Success in social work is receiving as much as it is giving. It is the shifting perspectives that shape identity and attitude.
It is a life lived.
And on days in social work when such metrics are not enough to make the job feel sustainable, success in social work can, in fact, be measured by the amount of times a social worker says, “what the hell am I doing with my life?”
Today, I was a damn successful social worker.