Monday, February 25, 2013

Where Responsibility Lies

There’s a tension that lies beneath the surface in social work that is rarely discussed explicitly. But this selfsame tension has exploded in the political realm where it shapes a fundamental debate dividing left from right. It was certainly a pulsing, ever present theme of last Fall’s US presidential election. But even there, the issue wasn’t ever truly engaged in a way that wasn’t rhetorically divisive and thoroughly partisan.

I’m talking about the question of Responsibility, as in, who or what is responsible for Outcomes in our individual lives. And of course, our dominant political tribes come at this from opposite directions. Those on the conservative right state that success in life is the onus of the individual. And those on the liberal left (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I declare that I’m in this camp) say that social inequities and forces have so much to do with determining outcomes that they can overwhelm individual choice, determination and talent. The right says that government should stay out of things, and leave individuals to fully exercise their freedoms and thereby create their own success or failure. Those of us on the left proclaim the necessity of broad political and social activism, to counter inequities, to break oppressive patterns and to even the playing fields.

But this fundamental debate is carried out in a very polarizing way, each side refusing to acknowledge or consider the merits of the other. While the reality is that there is truth in both points of view. Neither perspective gives us the whole story. But the debate about Entitlements is carried on from these philosophical poles. Those in the lower socio-economic strata are portrayed as dependant leeches by one side, unwilling to work and weighing down the rest of us with their taking. The other side too often treats the same group as victims, but focuses much of its attention on the economically and politically powerful, who are assigned the role of victimizers.

On the left, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge any positive aspect of competitive capitalism, or any problem with entitlements. While on the right, there's an unwillingness to accept the flaws of an economic system that extends the bulk of its rewards to a slim minority, or to acknowledge the appropriateness of correcting the imbalances that keep so many mired in poverty, with all of its devastating side effects.

One source of the difficulty is the collapsing of “blame” with “responsibility”. The concept of “Not Blaming the Victim” has become an accepted ethical standard, but to the point where there is reluctance to even suggest that a victim bears responsibility for their recovery and ultimate health. But how can it be otherwise?

How can a person NOT be responsible for their health? How can a person NOT be responsible for supporting themselves, or at least contributing to the society that supports them? Responsibility is not blame. But in our zeal not to blame we often overlook or downplay the most important tool that any of us possesses, that being the responsibility to self and to others, to care for ourselves and to shape our own lives, to the extent that we are able. The right may err in overselling the potential to overcome all obstacles with work and determination. It’s a pseudo mythology that seeks to defend gross inequities as morally neutral, and it’s wrong. But the left may err even more seriously with its mythology of victimization that holds that oppressive conditions and social forces are insurmountable.

Isn't it true that achievement and progress in life are dependant on both the circumstances in which we find ourselves (or which we can find) and on our choices, our values, and our will – in short, our character?

It concerns me that so many of the young people I work with go on welfare, and that they remain there year after year, often with very little pressure or motivation to find work, or to prepare themselves to be able to work. Many of them are self-motivated, and struggle to find work, or training, or to complete their schooling. But many are not. And even those who are motivated struggle to find work, or employment training, or educational programs that actually take them somewhere. Many youth get onto disability, yet know that they are capable of work, and would like to have an occupation and make a contribution. But they have so few supports, or avenues that will lead to employment that they give up trying, and merely languish.

It concerns me is that, as a society, we’ve moved to improve living conditions, to improve schools and medical care, to increase access to treatment and legal services and equal opportunity – not enough, mind you. But we neglect and overlook the greatest and most effective generator of change, that being the motivation and determination of those who desire the change.

Probably the most negative and destructive indicator of this is how we are willing to divert so many resources into policing and incarceration, but allow our schools and training programs to deteriorate. The rightest creed of small government and individualism actively promotes this kind of neglect, though it reflects backward thinking: it’s so much more costly to allow individuals to fail, and then have to incarcerate them, then it is to educate and train them, and ensure that they can live decently.

But we leftists have it wrong too. We focus so much attention on what our clients don’t have, in the way of resources, support, housing, funding, physical and mental health care, etc., and on trying to acquire those things for them. And we focus far too little on what they already have, that being themselves, and their characters, and on building up those things. We're good at demanding that the rest of society come up with resources and solutions for those who are wanting. But we're not nearly so good at requesting, expecting, demanding action from those who have only themselves. It's understandable: we tend to think of those who have only themselves as poor, as impoverished, as having nothing. But isn't that a gross flaw in our thinking, to so demean the self?

As I write this, I have in mind a housing subsidy that has recently become available to some of the homeless in Toronto. It provides a supplement that can be applied to rent, making better quality housing available. It’s a very important thing. But, it’s provided for 5 years. And there’s nothing built into the subsidy for anything to happen to ensure that when those years have lapsed, the recipient no longer needs the subsidy. Why then is the subsidy automatically provided for five years? This type of funding doesn’t do much toward actually building and supporting a recipient’s capacity. It merely fits into the current paradigm of providing a slightly better and longer lasting band-aid to a problem that demands much deeper solutions.

I hope that left and right can come closer together in discussing these issues. Whether the right moves toward the middle ground or not – and it doesn’t seem likely that open-mindedness and reason hold sway there these days, we on the left can move. We can acknowledge that endless entitlements don’t work. We can work more actively at unleashing and supporting the will, the character and the sense of responsibility of those we work with. These tools are too vast and potent to waste.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Meditation Breakthrough

Earlier today I was about to go into a negotiation, and I was anxious and excited about it. My adrenalin was pumping and my mind constantly running different versions of the approaching scenario. I decided to meditate for a few minutes to settle myself. As I began scanning my body, surveying inch by inch and registering the sensations, I recognized that I was anticipating the calm I was after as much as I was experiencing the agitation of the moment. I was getting ahead of myself, like when I’m late getting somewhere and find myself leaning forward as I walk, trying to hurry along my progress.

One thing meditation had taught me already is that I can’t give my full attention to two things at once. Full attention may even be an impossibility. Certainly, focus to the depth that my Vipassana meditation training has brought me goes far beyond what’s expected in other areas of my life. In fact, most of modern life actually encourages partial attention, and with the advent of the cult of multi-tasking, the more partial the better.

But attention isn’t only quantitative, and the more focused it is, the more it shifts in quality and effect. So realizing that I was splitting my attention while I meditated, trying to feel myself into a desired future state at the same time that I was ostensibly experiencing the current state, was a significant realization. All the more so because anticipation goes against the very heart of my meditation training, which is all about being present.

“Don’t try to change your breathing,” Goenkaji had said in that first lecture I attended. “Observe the breath . Is it fast or slow, deep or shallow? Just observe it. But don’t try to change it. It will change on it’s own.”

And so I stopped reaching for calm, and instead sat and allowed myself to feel the surging energy and that tingling in my core that signaled my arousal. And yes... it did change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Let's Talk...about Mental Health

There's a campaign afoot to get people talking more often and openly about mental health, and today has been designated "Let's Talk" day. So I think I'll write about it.

I don't think of myself as mentally ill, but then again I don't think of myself as physically ill, either. But just as I've experienced physical illness throughout my life, it's probably fair to say I've suffered from mental illness all my life as well, though I cringe a bit at expressing it that way. 

Which, to me, highlights a big chunk of what we're dealing with. As a culture, we're still stuck in treating maladies of the mind in broad, imprecise generalities that confuse or obscure realities. We lump various conditions together, overlooking important distinctions, with the result that simple and appropriate solutions are overlooked.

And my openning points to one of the main - and very problematic - generalities. We think of physical illness as something that comes and goes. But mental illness it's treated like a once and forever thing. You can catch a bad flu, get over it, and that's that. But have a serious bout of depression and it's liable to follow you forever. Have a moody day and folks around you will be ready to put you back on the medication. Of course depression can be recurring. And some people get the flu every year. But it ain't necessarily so.

Take another example. We recognize that a person who has trouble walking can be dealing with any one - or more than one - of a wide variety of very different conditions. The problem could be a broken bone, or an infection. A splint would aide in one of those conditions and a shot of penicillin in the other, but if you misapply them you achieve nothing. But the problem might also be a torn or sprained muscle or an inflamed joint; there could be an illness at work, or a back, spine or nerve problem in play. Or a person might be paralysed, over-worked, or under-nourished. Some of these conditions are indicative of disease, others are not; some may be on-going, and others are very temporary and non-recurring.

But when it comes to the mind, we're much more likely to simply think of someone as having a "mental health problem", and getting no more precise than that. We'll back away from the person afflicted, avoid all discussion with them about what's going on, then gossip with everyone else. But in reality, the problem could be chronic or passing, biological or incidental, serious or minor, hereditary or environmental, incapacitating or a survival skill.

Perhaps most damaging is that we tend to think of people suffering from a mental health problem as permanently damaged or defective, something we'd never think of someone with the a lung infection, a broken toe or chicken pox. Even cancer and AIDS have gradually shed the "mark of death" stigma, because survivors who suffer no apparent, on-going deficits have become common. But the scourge of mental illness remains.

In my own case, when I look at it and think about it, I become mentally ill much more regularly than I become physically ill. I have a strong constitution and my body just doesn't break down that often. But I come down with mental/emotional "colds" and "flus" pretty regularly. They aren't severe enough that I need hospitalization, but I might need a day off from work, or just to retreat from my social world for a bit. Or I might need to take some "over-the-counter medication", like some regular meditation, or walks, or talks with my closest friends. And just as on the physical side, a little preventative nutrition and exercise can go a long way.

This lack of awareness exists as much in my area of work - the social services - as elsewhere. In this community we're accustomed to dealing with clients with diagnosed mental illnesses. But we are also conditioned to ignore the milder forms of depression, anxiety or mental exhaustion that so many of us suffer from. I've worked at agencies where mental health days were treated as the same as physical health days. But that's a rarity, and there's little substantive support for the "care givers" who don't care for themselves, hense the rampant burnout in the field, of workers who are overwhelmed and stressed to the limit.

So, I'm grateful and appreciative of this small effort to draw more attention to mental health. No doubt it'll get better, if we'll only pay attention...and keep on talking about it!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Speaking Secret Streets

Remember that gorgeous film, “Wings of Desire” about the angels overlooking sad, black and white Berlin? They wander and listen and observe, tapping into the secrets, fears, the desires; listening to the thoughts of the despairing, the lost, taking that lonliness in, silent witness and sharer of each lonely burden.

Arrogant as it is to compare us to the angels, I’m honored to be part of a team that recalls to me the feeling of watching that film. We do street outreach to the homeless in downtown Toronto. Most of our connections with clients begin in street level entryways, on the tops of sidewalk grates, under the expressway that slices through the downtown core, in parks, kneeling beside them while they panhandle, and in the tiny encampments along the Don
Valley or along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.

These isolated beings make me think of the night stars, in that they can be so invisible in the glare of day, in the raucous energy of a bustling metropolis at noon. But in the silence, the stillness and the dark, stretched space of the night and early morning, they seem almost to reappear, though they’ve been there all along. And the more still and silent one remains in that darkness, the more of them reappear, until, like the stars, the night is full of them.

I love city streets. And from the beginning, I felt blessed to have a job that required that I spend hours walking them. Streets are like stories...slowly unwinding, letting go their secrets, inviting you in deeper, to where you can't turn back. Most streets are short stories, quickly revealing their nature, building quickly and surely to release, telling their one and only tale. But some are complex, winding, long, weaving sub-plots and cross purposes. The buildings are like paragraphs and chapters, and on the streets of Toronto they tell a jumbled tale that jumps genres and styles with abandon. And so the city becomes a kind of living library.

And the homeless denizens of these streets are like the portions of these stories that have been edited out. They are the disconnected bits of a city that has grown rapidly and unevenly, beautifully though stressfully. And they speak the mangled, jarring bits, the Freudian slips, the mixed metaphors, the spewed Tourette epithets that aren’t deemed fit for the published manuscript. And yet, how much of the story these characters speak. All the two sharp language, the too graphic descriptors, the bite of the story are in them, these homeless, these displaced.

And I, our team, we’re that part of the writer that doesn’t want to let go of these morsels of pure, unsanitized truth. We’re entrusted with going out into the streets, with our ears and hearts open, to listen, listen, listen. To see, see, see.

During my first month in street outreach, walking up and down, with no pressure to get anywhere, but with the license (representing the people of the city) to be open and to connect, I found myself approached by these homeless. I looked at them, didn’t turn away, moved as an invitation, without destination but with purpose. And they, the street people, responded. They looked, they felt, they opened their mouths and spoke, sometimes with the force of the long-unspoken, the long unheard, the forever whispered. So often unintelligible, but always felt. Always real, and part of the as yet untold story.

I’m moved by all this. Inspired. So much so that sometimes I finish my day nearly intoxicated. And, perhaps like Wim Wender’s angel in the film, a respect sets in, a kind of recognition, a longing even. To be so human, so vulnerably, indefensibly, pathetically yet nobly human. To the point you no longer can or care to cover it up, to the point where public becomes your private, where everything is exposed and on the table.
No, I won’t go there. Of course not. It would be too rash. Would require too much courage, too much of the suicidal. But to recognize, at least to recognize, kinship with those whispering souls. To at least feel and recognize the heat of those distant, brilliant stars, shining out of a cold, dark night. To know those whispered words we don’t speak, but that scald our secret tongues and bleed out hidden hearts.