Revisiting “The Burden of the Sentinels”

Carol A. Hand

Reflecting about some of the places I have been where people were harmed reminded me of another one of my first posts. It seems fitting to share it again when I feel the need to remember how important it is for us all to listen to the voices of sentinels among us.

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Throughout my career in academia, I was unable to move from the space between cultures. Like some of my students, I, too, carried the burden of the sentinels. Most of my fellow faculty defined their role as that of gatekeepers for the profession of social work. Many faculty felt the purpose of education was to inculcate and enforce student compliance with professional competencies and standards.

Of course, few questioned the origins of these standards and who really benefited from the resulting assimilation. Fewer still contemplated what was lost through the process of homogenization. In my work, I tried to create a space for students to find their own voice and develop the skills to overcome or buffer the forces of conformity. Yet I sometimes had to witness the painful and tragic costs of my colleagues’ oppressive approach to education. Sometimes, all I could do was write about my observations and insights, as in the following essay drawn from those years.

It is tragic and deeply troubling that three students have committed suicide in the past two years. The faculty who worked with the students were grieving and confused. In an effort to heal, the head of student counseling services came to discuss suicide during the faculty meeting yesterday. I did not know the students who died, so as a person on the margins, my reaction to the discussion was very different than that of my colleagues. In fact, the discussion left me deeply troubled. The focus was on a new university policy. In order to reduce liability for the university, faculty would be required to force suffering students to meet with the dean for possible expulsion. The head of counseling services explained that suicide was a form of violence perpetrated by imbalanced individuals on those around them. They needed to be stopped.

When the discussion of suicide ended, no one asked what we might do differently in the future. When we seamlessly moved on to mundane issues, I was angry and distressed. I have seen the way our actions as faculty create problems for the most gifted and sensitive of our students. So I asked what we might do differently. There was no response. The conversation shifted to how to use the corporate credit cards. My response was to get up and leave the meeting at that point, slamming the door as I exited the room.

I know my colleagues interpreted my behavior as strange and annoying rather than as the only way I could express the depth of my distress. So be it. This reflection is my attempt to make sense of the strength of my reactions. And typically, my reflections are based on stories and metaphors that may seem unrelated.

A while ago, my partner at the time shared a story he heard on public radio about the experiences of researchers who were conducting a study of a community of chimpanzees (Thom Hartmann, November 22, 2006, Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees). Early in the study, the researchers noted that about 5 percent of the community appeared to exhibit all of the characteristics of depression. They stayed on the periphery of the community, they rarely engaged in social activities, and they appeared lethargic. With the best of intentions, the researchers decided to treat this isolated group for depression, so they removed the “depressed” chimpanzees from the community and worked with them. The treatment seemed to work. But each time the researchers returned to the troop, they noted that new chimps had taken up posts on the periphery, and they too were removed. At the end of the year, when the researchers returned to the troop’s home again to reintroduce the “healthy” chimps, they discovered that the rest of the troop had perished from an undetermined cause.

The researchers hypothesized that the sentinel chimps played a crucial role on the boundaries, scanning the environment and warning the troop of danger. Without sentinels, the troop fell prey to external predators. This raises questions about the importance of the “boundary spanners,” those who remain on the periphery to scan for external threats while still relating to the community, albeit in a distant manner. I have pondered this story’s links with my own observations of the burdens carried by people who are on the margins of society because of their difference.

It has been said that those Native people who are the most sensitive and gifted are the ones who do not survive. It is only those who are the strongest physically and psychologically who survive. For me, it is no wonder that Native people who carry the gifts of vision appear most susceptible to addiction. They are the boundary spanners who can see what can be, perhaps what should be, and how far we have strayed from that possibility. To be surrounded by a global society that is focused on exploitation of resources rather than preservation for future generations, on gratifying the self-interested pleasures of the moment rather than the preservation of meaningful relationships, why would not the burden sometimes be too great to bear?

To listen to a discussion of suicide, then, to hear it described as a form of violence perpetrated by deficient individuals on others, is profoundly disturbing. Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation? Where does the violence originate that leads to despair for those who are most sensitive? Does it help give heart to boundary spanners when we label them as deviant? When we medicate them to see the world through a drug-induced haze of mediocrity? When we fail to understand the profound suffering of those on the boundaries who try to warn those in the center about the dangers that surround the community?

When people choose to end their suffering, is it their violence or ours as a society that is the cause? To take one’s own life is the most profound sacrifice. It may be the only way left to alert others of the dangers we face because we have created a world where the brightest and most sensitive among us find no hope, no comfort, no sense of a deeper meaning in life. And when they die, who will be left as sentinels to alert us to the dangers that surround us? Who will protect us from our self-destructive consumerism and exploitation of the environment and others’ labor? Who will alert us to the slow death this imbalance promises for those generations to follow?

The well-meaning among us who would remove the sentinels for their own good may only be hastening the death of that which makes us most human. We can try to convince those who see what we cannot that their visions are hallucinations. We can anaesthetize them and preserve them in a state of half-life because it makes us feel “moral” and it makes our life more comfortable. Yet, by doing so, we do not even serve our own self-interests. The lesson of the chimpanzees is that we need to understand what the sentinels are telling us.

We need to create a space to truly listen to what they are trying to tell us about a world that has become toxic to the most sensitive among us. It may be the world of our classrooms. It may be the world outside. How can we, as social work faculty, learn from the sentinels about our own practice as teachers and advisors? Are there things we need to change about how and what we teach to create a place where sentinels can preserve a sense of hope and possibility? I do not have the answers to these questions. I grieve the deaths of these students even though I did not know them as individuals. And I grieve the lost opportunity to explore this issue in a thoughtful way with my colleagues.

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By sharing this essay penned years ago, it is my intention to honor the sentinels who remind us what it means to be truly human. It is my hope that we can learn to value them while they live so they no longer feel the need to sacrifice themselves.

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31 thoughts on “Revisiting “The Burden of the Sentinels””

  1. This is heartbreaking and infuriating. When we see what our so-called “leaders” are capable of, I try to believe that closer to home, there’s at least some enlightened compassion. Then to read how educators responded to young people in great distress, it’s beyond discouraging–though I guess it does explain how dangerous and hateful people get elected. Long live the Sentinels.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. We do need sentinels even more these days. From my perspective, you are certainly one of them, It’s so easy to forget what matters when there are so many intentional distractions we need to discern and filter out…

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Carol, your post is insightful and profound. It brought to mind my own painful experiences in working and living in toxic spaces. I have long lived on the margins of society, but never considered myself as a sentinel of the community. Your insights make clear that I must trust my vision and continue to sound the alarm. Thank you ❤

    Liked by 4 people

  3. A beautiful and powerful reflection Carol. My heart knows deeply the gifts of these sentinels and the grief of their departures. It is our loss every time and my only desire and work here is to guide others to wake up and see the immense beauty and gifts in themselves and others. 🙏🏻 Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Quote: ” Is it sane or reasonable for sensitive boundary spanners to settle for the insanity of war, the destructive exploitation of nature, the disparities that mean some individuals can buy gold-laced shower curtains while many people throughout the world die of starvation?”

    In the world of the insane it is the sane who are considered mad.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s a good thing I haven’t put my makeup on yet today, because I think this post would have proven more powerful than my waterproof mascara. Great message, sad truth, and incredible word usage. (Huge kudos to you for incorporating larger words fluently without sounding pretentious)

    A day before the kids were let out for winter break, they came to school to find their friend had made that fateful decision to end her life. They would have gone home to contemplate this tragedy, alone during dark winter days, with their parents at work, had the school not stepped up. They invited all the students to spend some time during Christmas week, playing games, eating pizza, and talking to clergy or counselors on site if compelled. Those teachers gave up their much needed break to be available for the ones left behind.

    There is a lot of really terrible examples, like you shared. Sometimes, a gem sneaks in and surprises you; reminds you of the power of hope and humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing such powerful experiences, observations, and insights, Free The Truth. I am so grateful to hear that faculty and administrators in the school your kids attend responded to tragedy in such a thoughtful, supportive way. I appreciate your kind and lovely comments a great deal and send my best wishes. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I feel the need to constrain my response to the suicide issue, I worked in that area for a number of years, and you don’t work to stop them, you listen to them and provide a supportive environ – but then you know that. Listening is, as I see it, is the key to life. Great post Carol, and I love your passion for others.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. This is a brilliant post.

    I’ve felt for many years that this deeply dysfunctional society we’ve built with violent, forceful actions causes severe difficulties for people who are sensitive and compassionate, while rewarding selfish, aggressive behavior. We condition sensitive people to withdraw from much of society and to feel inadequate while showing praise for those who are often the most violent. How so many people fail to see this is disturbing. The violent aren’t a majority, but the insensitive, apathetic and complacent are a majority. This is the serious problem. The violent are not kept in check by a balance between the different behavior types. Apathy has allowed them to run amok and prevent civilized behavior from becoming the norm.

    Are you sane if you’re considered insane in an insane society?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Came back to this post as I was scanning through many blogs and posts while staying at a client’s home and out of town. WordPress blogs: my home away from home! Anyway, your sentinels have been called many things over the millennia. I was raised in a Christian home and they were called prophets. We don’t have many of those today, or perhaps we have but they wisely remain silent or avoid publicity, particularly social media.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Came back to this post as I was scanning through many blogs and posts while staying at a client’s home and out of town. WordPress blogs: my home away from home! Anyway, your sentinels have been called many things over the millennia. I was raised in a Christian home and they were called prophets. We don’t have many of those today, or perhaps we have but they wisely remain silent or avoid publicity, particularly social media. I recognize myself as a sentinel/prophet/Watcher but not of the fringe group that fails to fit in. I could fit in, should I want to, but I don’t. And my place is not depressing or lonely to me, it’s an on-going challenge of self empowerment. I can readily see that society, in fact all of modern civilization is doomed, and it really doesn’t bother me that much. When I find rotten vegetables in my pantry, or fridge, I throw them in the compost. Earthians did not have to become globally rotten, they made a choice to feed their innate selfishness rather than pursue to more difficult and obviously salutary path of servanthood; of putting the ‘other’ first. Everyone of us has it within themselves to become an agent, or avatar, of compassion. Not in thoughts or words, but in actual deeds. It’s what we are designed to do, to become, to be. Time and human history will prove this to be a correct statement. Instead of service to others to discover the meaning of being human, Earthians chose the impossible: to attempt to satisfy their desires and their greed. They failed the essential test that defines what it means to be a human being. They chose wrong and the consequences spell the end of their reign on earth and the end of their species. Home Sapiens is going to be replaced by a new race of ‘mutants’ who will reject everything considered important or of worth to this dying society and who will build a whole new society without any reference to this failed civilization. These are prophetic words, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

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