As a worker in the social services, one of the great opportunities for learning comes from encounters with former clients, years after working with them. It’s a mixed bag experience that has taught me both humility and hope. It’s shown me both he power of small kindnesses and contributions, and the futility of grand plans.
Today I visited Anthony, a now 36 year old, Black male from Trinidad. Anthony is doing so well, and he knows it. Not that there aren’t disappointments, losses and hurts yet to deal with. But he’s gained perspective over the years, perspective which has made him less bitter, slower to combat, more aware and grateful when fortune and opportunity swing his way. This is maturity and wisdom I never truly believed Anthony would gain.
Thus my learning. It comes from an endless stream of the unforeseen that each encounter with a former client feeds into.
We students of human nature and human ways – which is one of the things that social workers are – are forever thinking we’ve come to a “knowing” about who and how people are. It’s not inappropriate that we so speculate; the work calls for it. We are about helping people to change their circumstances, and usually that involves encouraging and motivating them to act in ways we hope will move them toward ends they desire. It’s work that requires a continuous effort to understand.
Often though, we think we’ve reached an end point in the refinement of a theory of human ways, when really we’ve only come to a juncture, a useful intersection of life and knowledge that may tell us very little about the corner that’s up ahead.
So the Anthonys, who upset our predictions – happily and tragically – are useful and humanizing correctors. He and others, in living out the determined seeds or dreams of their becoming, teach us to temper our own analysis of the dynamic forces of life we try to tame and influence.
The most startling shock to my arrogance in predicting the end road of my clients came in a pair of encounters, with two young men I worked with in a group home in Seattle decades ago. The two of them were stereotypically opposites. One, I’ll call him Ralph, was the perfectly self-aware, respectful and cooperative kid, a favorite of all the staff, quick to come to us for advice, inviting us to know him and to help him navigate the road from a dysfunctional family to something resembling normalcy. The other, Frank, was a spoiled, self-absorbed and angry manipulator, who violated every rule and sabotaged every activity, and terrorized the other residents mercilessly. Their destinies seemed so clear. Ralph, we all knew, was destined for a responsible and satisfying life; Frank would surely end up in prison, or dead.
But years later, when a volunteer program bought me deep into the bowels of Shelton prison, it was Ralph sitting there among a group of inmates, convicted of assault and kidnapping and part way into a years long sentence. And awhile later, while attending a meeting of community leaders, it was Frank who was brought along as a promising protégé of a program director, and introduced as a creative and dynamic youth leader at the university he was attending.
This was the most shocking upset to my prognosticating powers, but there were many others. And it isn’t the predicting that’s the problem really. It’s the belief in what is foreseen, sometimes a commitment to it, that leads to options being offered or withheld, that confirms preferences and prejudices, that qualifies approval or represses a necessary confrontation. It’s thinking that I know a person’s insides better than I do, and that I can therefore judge.
So Ralph and Frank, and today, Anthony, have been important teachers to me with their surprises. I’ve learned over the years not to credit too much my insights into the workings of another human being. Many times I’ve had to see that the choice I recommended with deep conviction was not the right one, or that the explanation for an act or an omission failed to take a key factor into account. People may be stubborn and slow to change, but deep change can come unexpected and in an instant, even to the one making the choice.
And, I’ve learned that, with all our attempts to teach, coach, support, mold, even control, it isn’t always possible to know what another human being hears when you say the words you say, or what they feel when you engage them, or what part of your offerings they will hold close, even live by, years after you’ve forgotten you offered them.
It was so good to see Anthony today. He has grown so much since I worked with him. That he was glad to see me tells me that I was in some way useful to him when he felt so angry and alone. But I take no credit for who he has become. And I stand in wonder at the power and mystery of his becoming.