“Success is measured differently by different people.”-Virgil Goode

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.

5 thoughts on “Success

  1. Beautifully said, Nat! Your clients are lucky to have such a passionate and dedicated clinician on their team.

  2. Beautiful woman, glad you are back. Yes after 47 years in social work (now retired), I remember ever thought you share. I knew the good, the bad and the ugly about it all, but in the end, social work affirms human value. No matter how pissed off I got at times and at (certain) clients, I know every soul I worked with was worth the effort. So glad I did that work and manage now to live off my very modest pension. I’m proud to have borne witness to the suffering, hope and heartache of all those human beings who had no one but me (!!) and whatever program brought us together. I know I always did my best, even when I felt crabby, had cramps, was lovesick and/or broken-hearted, and I most often felt love and compassion (except when really crabby). I’d much rather have this work as my legacy than have $$ multi-millions, working in finance, complaining about how many taxes I pay. Really truly. But only you, Banshee, express the social work experience with respect and value, thank you so much for this. You make me cry (or at leas t tear up) every time you write.

  3. Elated that you are back! Thank you for these beautiful words that I will use in the future to explain why my retirement years are being spent as a volunteer case worker. Wishing you many more damn good days!

  4. Retired now, I still become dismayed when I’m reminded of how little much of the public understands or cares about what social workers do each day. When that happens I just read some of your words and the truth calms me. Works every time!! Thank you.

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