Get in the Arena

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Yesterday I carved out time from my new job to return to my previous workplace and attend graduation for the last group of men to complete a program that has been in place for 21 years. I worked directly with part of the group through most of the time they were there. Just thinking about the experience, before and after, elicits a range of emotions, from sadness to pride, but I welcomed the opportunity to speak at the ceremony. Just days before, I picked up a book I purchased months ago, and what I read prompted my words to them. This is what I had to say:

“This week I started reading a book called Rising Strong, by Brené Brown, PhD. The timing of her words couldn’t have been better, because as I read, I thought of you and what I wanted to say to you as you complete this program and move forward with your lives.

She quoted from a famous speech, “Man in the Arena,” by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man       stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

She continues to focus on the “ugly details” of failing – imagining that we are face down. The crowd may be silent, or booing, or all we can hear is the voice of someone telling us to get up and move on. We tend to think of arenas as some grand event, but these facedown moments can be small ones like our child lying to us about hitting a sibling or a disappointment at work or a “we chose someone else” call after a job interview – basically any moment where we risked showing up and being seen – feeling awkward trying something new, tough parenting moments, being in love, or sharing with your probation officer that you are craving that substance that got you into a world of hurt. She pondered the process of rising strong, of staggering to our feet and finding the courage to try again. What do the people who keep going have in common?

Her research has led her to believe that slowing down the rising and falling process is the key. To cultivate an awareness of the choices that are in front of us in the moments of discomfort and hurt. To take the time to weigh the consequences of those choices, and she has learned that incorporating storytelling into her research has been the most beneficial. And that is part of what you have been doing here for the last few months.

While in this program, you have been asked to share your stories, to become vulnerable. I know that wasn’t easy, because many of you clearly expressed your desire to avoid the pain of being vulnerable, particularly in this setting. I get that. But I watched something happen to you and your peers as you shared. You each grew – some with baby steps, others with giant leaps – in understanding where or why you had moments of failure, thoughts of how you could or would change to avoid that failure in the future, expressions of understanding why a peer is the way he is, and offering acknowledgement for the pain someone else had survived. It was truly amazing to see and I was honored that you trusted me in those moments.

Many of the stories I heard were about huge efforts to avoid feeling pain – whether extreme pain inflicted on you, knowing you hurt others, or the disappointment of neglect – and the failures were acting out the hurt, sometimes on others. Now it’s time to move forward. To be vulnerable with the people who count in your life. Here are the three truths you can take with you from this quote:

Get in the arena. You can choose courage or comfort. One or the other. You can’t have them both at the same time. Your acquaintances who are still using out there? They are choosing the easy way of blocking out pain rather than dealing with it. I’m not saying their lives are easy, but they are choosing what they know, what has become familiar. You know something different now. Take this new experience and build on it.

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome. It really is the greatest expression of courage, not weakness. Being vulnerable with your family, or your probation officer, to ask for help and support. Will you have people say “no?” Sure. But it’s their loss when you go on to experience success without them. That is courage.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They are always ready to offer put-downs or call you lame for trying to follow probation guidelines or stay sober. If they’re not interested in getting in the game and fighting for their lives, what they have to say about you means nothing. Can you still care and hope they find a way to change? Absolutely, but don’t let their criticisms from the sidelines define you. Will it take time for your family members or sober friends to trust you again? Absolutely. You’ve made promises to them before that have been broken. Prove by your actions that you want to regain their respect. That is courage. And you may be thinking you got the short end of the stick being the last group, with staff leaving and not getting everything  previous groups have gotten. But you’re here at the finish line, despite the additional challenges. That is courage.

In light of the upcoming championship games for my favorite sport of basketball: Get out there in the game, and play with all the courage you can muster. When you trip or foul or miss a 3-pointer, take a little timeout, think through your choices, talk with your coach, get back in the game with courage, and crush it.” (CHEERS TO KENTUCKY!)

I must add, that for years I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines, cheering for others, but afraid to play. Waiting for someone to send me in. Afraid of the criticism. Afraid to fall on my face. Afraid the voice in my head that told me I was not good enough was correct. Somehow I mustered up the courage to get back in the game. To return to school and finish a college degree at age 49. I can tell you – it feels infinitely better playing the game and crushing it!

 

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9 Things I Won’t Miss and 4 Things I Will Miss From My Last Job

jail-cellThis week I started a new job after spending the last 4.5 years working as a social worker/ counselor in a county jail-based substance abuse program, run under the direction of the local Sheriff’s office. I am proud of the work I was doing, helping people take a hard look at what got them to this point, see their own potential, and plan the changes that might keep them from returning to alcohol or drugs (and incarceration) as a coping skill. After 21 years of significant success, the powers-that-be decided to hand over substance abuse treatment to the medical and mental health entity, ending the program as it is, and eventually presenting the dreaded pink slips to any personnel who haven’t found other employment. Although I feel sadness and disappointment for the ending of this chapter of my life and career, particularly in this manner, I accept the opportunity to stretch and grow in other areas as I move forward. Saying “so long” is never easy, and it has been an emotional week. This tongue-in-cheek post is meant to lighten up my own mood as much as it is to give a somewhat humorous but real peek into the life of those who work behind the walls and barbed-wire.

I won’t miss:

Having to carry a see-through purse/bag. I believe this is self-explanatory; however, “transparency” has a whole new meaning when you have to choose a small plastic purse that fits inside your “outside” purse, just to make sure you don’t ever leave behind something you really need while making sure you aren’t carrying “contraband.”

Hearing constant two-way radio chatter. This may not have bothered others, but it was like nails-on-the-chalkboard to this INFJ, who gets more work done and renewed mentally and emotionally in a quiet atmosphere.

Clanging of sliders and clicking of doors. Anyone watch Law &  Order? You know that sound at the beginning of the show, and between scenes? Yes, kind of like that. Any efforts to see clients in their housing unit means you hear that. You get used to it after 4.5 years, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Getting caught in a sally port and forgotten. In the event you’ve never had the experience of being incarcerated, volunteered in, or visited someone in jail or prison, a sally port could be described as a small enclosed hallway between two steel sliding doors. Someone far away at a control panel lets you in from one side and closes that side before opening the other. I was never stranded between the two for more than 5-10 minutes, but that can seem like an eternity when you’re claustrophobic! Yikes!

Eating every lunch out of plastic or paper containers and with plastic utensils. The building where programs and our offices were positioned was within a secure area. This was convenient for seeing clients, but limited us from using ceramic plates and cups or metal utensils. Not the end of the world, I know, but definitely inconvenient for potlucks and cutting or stabbing leftover steak you bring from home. And try to cut a large graduation celebration cake with a spatula! Messy is an understatement.

Multiple county-and-agency-wide emails daily that don’t pertain to me. At all. It remains to be seen if this is only true of a large local government. Nonetheless, it is aggravating, particularly when you return from vacation and most of what you received is to be deleted. If you don’t, you might get that cleanup-your-mailbox warning.

Intercom announcements that echo so much they can’t be understood and seemingly go on forever. I’m sure that much of this issue is due to the concrete structure and design of the buildings, but when you are straining to assess a client and talk over one of the many announcements, you just have to stop and wait it out. (The only loudspeaker “announcement” I appreciated was one clear morning I arrived to work and could hear The Star Spangled Banner proclaimed loudly from Tent City. My throat tightened with emotion and pride as I stopped and faced the flag, singing every word.)

Constant awareness for items that are considered contraband for inmates due to their potential to become a weapon. I never had an issue with an inmate attempting to take something they were not to have, but I had to develop an alertness for the potential risk of a pen, marker, scissors (kindergarten blunt-tip ones used in cutting up magazines for vision boards), glue sticks, makeup in your pocket, etc., that might drop or be left behind in the counseling room or the housing unit.

jail-cell-2Disrespect of human beings based on their current setting. This does not apply to everyone, but it is reality. I am no bleeding heart and believe most of us have to accept consequences for choices we have made. When employees (not colleagues) ask why you are helping “these people,” it’s disheartening, as “these people” are getting released to my community. The more tools they have to change, the better chance they have to contribute positively. They may not go out and change this time, but some time in their future they may remember something they learned and choose to change. I have to take that chance.

I will miss:

Working 1st shift hours. Traffic! Need I say more? Okay, I will anyway. The 0630-1430 shift means the commute is significantly shorter and less annoying. After only one week, I’m still working on navigating this maybe-I-should-invest-in-a-jet-pack-or-use-Uber-so-I-can-still-get-something-done traffic! So far, Audible books have saved my sanity.

The experience I received of hearing the stories of clients who are at their lowest point. I am honored to have had clients who trusted me and their group members enough to share traumatic histories in a setting that does not lend itself to this kind of vulnerability. I grew professionally and personally. I am a better counselor and can take this experience with me and build on it.

Hearing from former clients who are seeing success. It’s not for a pat on the back. The clients are doing the hard work, facing all kinds of challenges. More than anything, those updates are an inspiration to continue doing and caring, despite the weariness of the work.

Some super talented colleagues who were and are passionate about what they do. I have learned from their experience and viewpoints, and felt valued by their support and encouragement. We hope to stay connected due to our common field of service, but proximity and crazy schedules make it a huge challenge. They will not be forgotten, and I will definitely miss “killin'” lunch, and continuing to say goodbye each day to a former colleague. Okay, maybe not that last part!

As a preacher’s kid, I never ever imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would ever work in a jail, much less love it. It’s bittersweet moving on, but my time has not been wasted. In my last meeting with my group, more than one member admitted that they never dreamed of or planned on opening up to a counselor before this experience. What a privilege to have had the opportunity to impact people in a positive way. More opportunities are coming my way.

When What You Want Scares You to Death

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Yesterday was the end of the first week of a new venture for me. Just over one year ago, I had to begin the painful experience of making student loan payments. They really cut into the budget when you complete an undergraduate and two graduate degrees. So I started looking into part time side gigs that would offer a decent wage as well as use my education and experience. I applied for related openings as an adjunct at a local community college. It took nearly a year before I received any communication at all, which was frustrating and relieving at the same time. I know I’m capable, but new things are scary.

I was nervous about the interview, just because I always am, I suppose. Something about second-guessing myself, wondering if the interviewer will “get me” and what I’m passionate about. Unexpectedly, it went much better than I imagined, and I had an appointment to complete hiring paperwork by the end of that week. It was a pretty awesome feeling. When I realized it was my responsibility to complete the syllabus beyond the skeleton of expected assignments, the panic started, since I still imagine that I’m expected to be perfect, as I wrote about in this post. I was down to the wire completing it for approval, waiting with apprehension for the response, but it passed with flying colors. (I’m hoping the first time is the worst time!)

Because I have a full time position that I love, it was just in the week before school started that I was able to drop by the school, pick up copies, and ask a few last minute questions. Last weekend, I gathered up and organized all my materials to be ready for arriving early and getting settled in the classroom. Of course, nervous energy had me in  somewhat of a frenzy on Monday morning. I arrived at the classroom just ten minutes before class was to start with a plan in mind to get acquainted with students and help them feel comfortable with me on their first class of their first day. They were very gentle and accepting, completing an icebreaker activity, and asking a few questions, so the class itself went relatively well.

However, when I walked out of the classroom and across campus to my vehicle, rushing to get to my other job, all I could think of was the mistakes I had made. The computer in the classroom only had a blue screen and I was unclear as to how to reboot it without completely ruining something. (Of course, on Wednesday, I remembered that computers are generally hearty enough or have built in protections to withstand the inexperienced user.) I didn’t remember seeing anywhere about how to complete attendance, and because I hadn’t been able to use the computer, I had not been able to investigate where that should be done.

As I left campus, I got a text alert about my account balance, and my fuel light began flickering, reminding me that I had planned to leave the house early to fill up. At that moment, this venture that I had pursued eagerly suddenly felt like a failure. Would I be in trouble with the staff for not completing attendance? Was I expected to know where? How? How can I expect students to start taking responsibility for themselves if I was not prepared? What was I thinking, believing I was capable of such a task? My own negative self-talk had me calling in and quitting.

Fortunately, I began thinking about my purpose in pursuing this kind of task in the first place. How could I encourage the love of learning and inspire students to not just start, but continue on this educational journey, if I quit when I just feel like I failed? How will they learn that success comes because of perseverance despite failure? I don’t want to only tell them, I want to show them that small battles will be lost, but the war can be won. And besides, the first day has to be the most difficult and traumatic. For teachers and students. It has to get better from here, right? Besides, I told too many people what I was doing to back out now. (Accountability is uncomfortable, but it supports consistency between words and action.)

So, I punched fear in the face. I asked questions. I learned more about how things are supposed to go. I went to class two more days. No students threw rotten vegetables at me. And many are asking questions and making strong efforts to complete homework, leading me to believe I didn’t scar them too badly. I believe I even related to them by being real.

The coolest thing about Monday was a role reversal that was unexpected. At the end of my day, after I made it to the gas station on fumes and addressed my low account balance, I made my way into the restaurant where my daughter works. She rushed to give me a hug, asked about my first day, and offered me a free iced tea! She assured me that it wasn’t so bad. And when I asked about the cheesecake special of the month, she bought the slice of Caramel Apple Cheesecake for her mom for my “first day.” (I can hear Carly Simon singing “Coming around again” in my head.)

I’m looking forward to this semester and many more. And I’m hoping the journaling of this experience continues to be a reminder that one perceived failure is only part of the growth process. Not the end of goals and dreams. Success is not free of mistakes and failures, but enhanced by them.