My little dog lay in pain suffering slowing dying a victim of unintended incompetence and lack of compassion in a capitalistic culture I could only bear witness offering soft hands and soothing words without the skills and knowledge to heal him
I learned survival and healing are possible even in situations that sometimes appear hopeless if you are willing and able to pay enough for competence and caring
Nature doesn’t charge a fee for the beauty she shares for all to see She merely waits patiently for us to awaken to our responsibilities to care
This morning, I found myself wondering about the reflections I posted during mid-July in past years and decided to take a retrospective journey. For decades, July has been a time spent gardening. Watching the miracle of life unfurl from dry seeds never ceases to fill me with awe. Tending plants gives me a chance to focus on helping living creatures in practical, grounded, and perhaps, creative ways.
Gardening is like life in many ways. It’s not easy – or predictable either. Each of my past eight years gardening here has presented challenges to address – deer before the high fence went up, invasions by slugs during wet years, droughts in early spring and late summer, and deluges that wash away seeds that have just been planted or crush tender plants. This year is the year of the rabbits. The population of little bunnies that can get through fencing has exploded.
Still, I love the chance to work with gardens and attempt to solve perplexing issues. People are often more difficult for me to work with and I sometimes wonder why my path led me from a career in ecology to one in social work…
But back to my journey through past posts. I hope you will join me The posts reflect topics I often ponder when gardening when I have a chance to wander through time – how to find common ground in a divided world, how to be present in the moment, and the importance of relationships with others and the natural environment.
When I walked into the office of an inter-tribal agency on the first morning of my new job as deputy director of health and human services, it was clear how easy it was for people to be divided. Staff for the five programs at the time only felt ownership for their programs. They resented any expectations of collective responsibility for the welfare of the agency or tribes. They fought over which program paid for stationary and who could use the one computer. They didn’t question the appropriateness of imposing state and federal requirements on tribal communities. And in situations where staff struggled to meet program requirements, there was only censure and no help. The eleven-member Board of Directors comprised of the Chairpersons of member tribes was also easily divided, concerned only about meeting the interests of their respective tribal community. Why would it be otherwise if they expected to be reelected? There was little recognition of the needs of urban Native American populations in the state, and strong resistance to any cross-ethnic collaboration.
Looking back, I realize that at each step, I tried to find common ground among my department staff, my agency colleagues, other oppressed communities, and with funders and administrators as well. It is so easy for people who are oppressed to see others who are oppressed as the enemy. Who loses and who benefits from divisions among oppressed people? Clearly, those in power benefit from deflecting attention away from the role they play as our puppet masters. We keep each other oppressed and all too often, kill each other off while those in power profit financially and enjoy the illusion that they are smarter, more developed morally and culturally, and better fit to impose their hegemony.
Who benefits from the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine? Only those who sell their souls and the hopes and dreams and lives of other people for the illusion of personal safety and status, those who wish to exploit oil and other resources with greater ease, and those who get rich by selling their weapons. Those who lose are ordinary people on both sides. Homes and lives are lost on both sides and children on both sides grow up in a war zone that teaches them to fear and hate their neighbors for generations yet to come. We all lose from a world at war, from a world where people are brutally murdered by governments for no other reason than securing the power and privilege of the ruling class. And we all lose when generations are denied the right to develop and contribute their gifts to the rest of the human community.
It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.
“You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.
“Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”
For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitative disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.
Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?…
As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say)
I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.
“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)
The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.
Sitting on my back step a few days ago
A musical voice drew my attention
“Oh you’re so beautiful, you make me so happy.”
I peeked through the fence and saw my neighbor,
turning away from the fence to walk home.
She talks to the flowers and plants in my gardens
and always touches my heart with her lovely spirit.
I ran out to invite her into the yard
She already knew about the geranium –
another neighbor rescued it from an early death
and left it as a gift early in the spring
What more could one ask of life than friends
who share the love of life and beauty?
When my daughter was born,
my view of the world forever changed.
Life was no longer something I peered at
from a safe distance
I felt it deeply – glowing in my heart
Powerful, shifting emotions
forced me to realize how precious
and precarious life can be
Holding each of my grandchildren for the first time
intensified my sensitivity and commitment
to do all in my power to be a loving presence
Watching them as they grow
amplifies both joy and pain
celebrating their accomplishments
suffering when they encounter challenges
Sometimes all I can do is
to simply try to be a loving presence
In times such as these it’s not easy
to believe the future holds bright possibilities
Let our hearts awaken and glow
with celebratory joy
after a stormy night’s
seemingly dreamless sleep
by the urgent sound of rain
pounding on windows and roof
accompanied by booming thunder
that shook the house
to its very foundations
yet resting unafraid
and rising gently
to greet the day
other awakenings grace my days
encountering random kindness
in unexpected places like the city bus
as a stately elder gentleman
reached across the divisiveness
so prevalent here today
to bring kindness and comfort
into the lives of others
and graciously dealt with
rejection from those
to fear difference and joy
I couldn’t leave the bus
without thanking him
in the only words
that came to me
“Sir, you are a blessing to others”
Greeting the cool sunny morning
listening to the joyous music of birdsong
deeply peaceful yet unable to drown out
the drumbeat of nationalism
that threatens to destroy us all
It’s our own consumption and complacency
clinging to old myths of benevolent exceptional empires
that keep us from seeing shared humanity
on an earth with no dividing lines
except for scars left by exploitation and war
It matters little which kleptocrats rule
when we choose to see others as an enemy
rather than to listen deeply to the heartbeats
of a planet we are entrusted to lovingly tend
Today, I will visit Pinto, my little dog, who’s in the hospital recovering from an operation.
Maybe I’ll have time to edit my manuscript and pull a few weeds, too, grateful for the gifts of beloved companions, a small relatively peaceful space on earth to tend, and the responsibilities to still care for others. I will continue to do what I can to build common ground in a divided world without compromising integrity, to be present in the moment despite the pain that sometimes brings, and to nurture healthy relationships with others and the natural environment by walking softly on the earth.
“Awesome! Ava and I will pick you up in about an hour.”
The annual sale is an event we have often attended, even when I lived far from Duluth. I remember trips with my grandson years before my granddaughter was born twelve years ago. Some years, the weather has meant a sweltering thirsty journey in mid-June as we walked along miles of the narrow roadway crowded with parked cars and new arrivals looking for empty spaces.
This year’s trip was a different story. It was cold in the morning when we arrived. Strong blustery east winds were whipping up waves along the Lake Superior shoreline, making the mid-50 F degree temperature feel more like winter. Warnings were posted, advising visitors to stay out of the water due to the danger of rip currents.
The Park Point neighborhood has a fascinating history. It is located on what was once a narrow seven-mile sandy peninsula that extended into the lake from the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. The Anishinaabe (also known as the Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Chippewa) had established a community, Onigamiinsing – the “little portage.” The first recorded European visitor arrived in Onigamiinsing in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, a French soldier and explorer (Wikipedia; Klefstad, 2012).
“By 1852, the first non-Indian resident, George Stuntz, had established three buildings for a trading post and living space” (Klefstad, 2012, para. 4).
Land for the new city was ceded by the Ojibwe to the United States in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. (More information about the treaty can be found at the following links: Wikipedia and MNopedia.) According to a report based on the U.S. Census, American Indians comprised 2.4% of Duluth’s population by the year 2000 (Gilly, Gangl, & Skoog, n.d.). The authors of the county report suggest that American Indians, like the majority of other people of color, were concentrated in Duluth’s poorest neighborhoods and less likely to live in neighborhoods like Park Point.
The settlers who arrived in the 1800s named their new home “Duluth” in honor of the first European visitor and began transforming the environment.
“By 1871, the long peninsula became an island when Duluth dug out the ship canal that separates the Point from Canal Park, the other part of Minnesota Point. After nearly 20 years, Park Point reunited with the mainland with the 1905 opening of Duluth’s signature structure, the Aerial Bridge, first as a suspended ferry, later as a lift-span roadway” (Klefstad, 2012. para. 7).
I did capture a couple shots of the bridge as we left Park Point on the only road that connects it now to the mainland.
We walked at least a mile or two down one side of the street and back on the other side. We passed the wetlands preserve on the bayside of the island/peninsula.
And we stopped to visit most of the yards and garages where a wide assortment of items were on display – clothing, dishes, art work, photography, toys, etc. I didn’t intend to buy anything but couldn’t resist the wool winter hat hand-crafted for Alaskan winters. I needed it yesterday morning in the cold wind!
Serendipity also led us to a photographer we visited last year when my daughter and I both bought framed pictures from him. This year, we merely stopped to look and chat and met a delightful blogger, Allyson Engelstad, who shares her photos and reflections on her beautiful blog. I encourage anyone who loves to learn about nature to visit her lovely site, penncosect24.
I couldn’t resist the gliding rocking chair for sale at a price far, far less than the battered ones I have seen in thrift stores. (My granddaughter offered to lend me the money to buy it because I left my purse in the car.) It’s sturdy and comfortable. Maybe someday I will change the upholstery on the cushions. Or maybe not. I used to sew and made most of my daughter’s clothes when she was little, but the doll I began making for my granddaughter more than twelve years ago when she was a baby still needs to be finished. (You’ll have to use your imagination to figure out what the upholstery looks like. I don’t think it’s worth a photo…)
Before we left for home, we visited the windy beach on the lakeside of the island/peninsula.
As we headed home, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some of the interesting sights in the city.
I enjoyed the break from working on cleaning up my yard and gardens. There is plenty of work still waiting and a manuscript to finish editing that is haunting me as well. I just wanted to share something along with my best wishes to all before I immerse myself in work again.
Reading the mainstream news confirms Cohen’s message
“There is a crack, a crack in everything”
yet all I have to offer are imperfect ramblings
Perhaps that’s enough to let some light get in?
The research my students read this past semester continues to haunt me. They explored how unequal access to potable water disproportionately affects the health of groups that have been relegated to marginalized socio-economic status and forced to relocate to the least desirable lands. Most people believe that “developed” countries are not affected by the scarcity of safe water to drink. Some of the students this past semester were shocked when they discovered otherwise.
One student shared a quote from a study she reviewed, “… the value of water is [only] truly appreciated when one becomes thirsty” (Noga & Wolbring, 2013, p. 1872). I am reminded of the courage and commitment of the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the violent resistance they had to endure because too many people take clean water for granted until it’s too late.
Another student reviewed a study about a community in Texas that was profoundly affected by a disaster. Although the study took place almost a decade after the residents learned that their water had been contaminated with benzene, the community remained shattered as a result of a “technological disaster” caused by a nearby oil refinery owned by the Exxon Corporation (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 118).
Although community members noticed problems with the smell, taste, and color of their water when they first moved into the newly developed subdivision in the 1980s, they were assured by the local municipal utility district that the water was safe. The district staff undoubtedly believed that to be true. Public water suppliers were not required to test for benzene, “a known human carcinogen,” until 1990 (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 120). After benzene was included among the chemical contaminants public water suppliers had to measure, the test results for the community’s water supply were alarming – the amount of benzene was eleven times greater than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Without informing residents, the district switched the community to a “safe” alternate water source after additional tests showed the same results for benzene. Community residents were not informed about the contamination or the switch until rumors and a local investigative reporter forced the issue. Residents were finally notified five months after the discovery and shift to a new water source. Couch and Mercury (2007, p. 117) describe the response. “In the words of one resident, the community reacted ‘like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.’”
Imagine what that does to the sense of trust community members have in their public service providers and government officials. It’s something residents in Love Canal, NY and Flint, MI experienced.
Residents in each of the communities affected by “technological disasters” had to undertake their own advocacy and identify researchers and lawyers who could help them prove their case. But ending at least part of the most obvious and egregious environmental injustices and winning court cases can’t heal the ongoing health damages, psychological trauma, or splintered community relationships that result.
This brief overview does not do justice to an important research study that details the complex intricacies of the multidimensional harm suffered by residents of this particular Texas community. Hopefully, though, it highlights a simple, compelling point. Vulnerability to the most destructive consequences of both technological and natural disasters is far greater for groups that have already been subjected to centuries of ongoing systematic and structural discrimination because of socio-economic status and ancestry. It is not something governments alone can address even if they are willing to do so. The causes are deeper and more complex.
There is a pattern we see repeating for each community that goes through the increasingly common natural and technological disasters. Community leaders declare their intention to rebuild and recover what was lost. Based on the experiences of communities that have survived repeated natural disasters, recovery has sometimes been possible. Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 131) point out “that in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters, a disaster subculture develops which helps residents prepare for and respond to disasters. For example, in natural disasters, a therapeutic community often forms by which neighbor helps neighbor to respond to the catastrophe” (emphasis mine).
What Couch and Mecuri (2007, p. 131) witnessed in the community they studied, however, “was just the opposite, with everybody looking out only for themselves. Instead of the community being solidified, it was ‘like someone stepping on an anthill.’” They argue that what developed was a subculture of distress among residents that reinforced “uncertainty, distrust, alienation, and conflicting individualized responses to the problems” (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 132, emphasis mine).
Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 134) argue that “With chronic technological disasters, recovery/transformation must often take place in the midst of ongoing danger, or at the very least, amidst the perception of it.” The trauma created by benzene contamination didn’t end when the problem was addressed by the municipal utility district. Residents had already ingested contaminated water and had been deceived by people and officials whom they had trusted.
They had to live with the fact that they were already ill or with constant fear that they might become seriously ill at some point in the future. They also learned that they couldn’t depend on government officials for help. They couldn’t recover the illusion that personal health and safety were guaranteed. The only option available to them was to transform themselves and their lives in response to changing circumstances.
As I thought about the difference between recovery and transformation for communities affected by disasters, I was reminded of the times we are all living in now. With each passing day, those in power around the world are creating ever more destruction and instability. Even if the destruction ends today, we will still need to contend with the destabilizing consequences for generations yet to come. The message I take away from this article is the need to learn how to create an adaptive community where people can learn how to work together rather than only look out for their own self interests.
Overcoming the programming that has affected too many of us in the world to hunger and thirst for things that destroy rather than sustain life is not an easy task. Perhaps as Cohen suggests, things need to break first so the light can get in. Perhaps the most that those who see the dangers ahead can accomplish is to transform themselves and what they think and say and do.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” from the 1992 album The Future.
Stephen R. Couch & Anne E. Mercuri (2007). Toxic water and the anthill effect: The development of a subculture of distress in a once contaminated community. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 14, 117-137.
Jacqueline Noga & Gregor Wolbring (2013). Perceptions of water ownership, water management, and the responsibility of providing clean water. Water, 5(4), 1865-1889.
Photos of a fascinating sunset this spring
made me wonder how many sunsets I’ve missed
during the 26,374 days I have lived
I don’t remember how many times
I failed to notice which direction was west
in the scores of places I’ve temporarily called home
The busyness of striving and surviving
as we travel down winding paths
sometimes keeps us too preoccupied to notice
Our vision clouded by so many things
that we believe are more important
than the ever-present beauty around us
Even ordinary scenes become extraordinary
when seen through the lenses of presence
surrounded by those whom we love
Perhaps noticing is especially important
when the clouds roll in promising another chilly rainy night
after the longest coldest winter I remember
At a time when the world already feels so dark
I am grateful for the chance to witness and remember
the beacon of momentary but ever-returning light
These are not the best of photos. They were taken in poor light with an iphone through dusty windows in a moving vehicle. 🙂 Nonetheless, I’m sharing them in hopes they will remind others to find moments to appreciate the beauty and wonder of seemingly ordinary places.
It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.
I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.
Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.
Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.
Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.
I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.
Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.
She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.
When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.
Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.
My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.
Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)
Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.
Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.
One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.
Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.
Be present in the moment and care about each student.
I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.
Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.
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.
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.
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.