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.

Be – Do – Have

Raise your hand if you typically introduce yourself as what you do or your role in your family? Hi! I’m so-and-so, and I do such-and-such. I work in a corporate office. I teach 1st grade. I’m a stay-at-home mom. (And I have to say that I am so grateful that I got to stay at home with my child until she started preschool. There is no amount of money that could have been more rewarding and fulfilling. I’ll also say that if you are/have been a working mom and like it, I have no stones to throw.) But, are you really what you do? Your job or career is an important part of you and certainly adds value and meaning to your life. It is not who you are.

For some reason, we (I) feel that what we have and what we do make us more important (or if you’re embarrassed to tell what you do, less important). If we have the beautiful house, fancy car, nice clothes, the attractive spouse, the perfectly-behaved-and-performing children, the elite job, that somehow that makes us more valuable in the world. When we think this way, we are really thinking backwards. It goes something like this: If I have the aforementioned things/people/job, then I can do ___________ (what my family needs, what my boss wants, etc.) and then I will be __________ (important, valued, generous, caring, kind, happy, determined, etc.).

I struggled with this for years. I knew what kind of person I wanted to be, but kept getting caught in the cycle of have-do-be, essentially hiding who I really was. I have found the opposite works more efficiently and effectively. What positive characteristics do you know are hiding beneath the surface because you keep thinking you must live up to an expectation? Has someone told you that you “always” are a certain way? Do you believe their predictions, telling yourself that you cannot change unless you have money/education/career, cannot do what they said you couldn’t, and then be what they said you would never be? It’s time to name those characteristics that you know are at your core, and be those characteristics. Then you can do the things that need to be done, in order to  have the things you need (and maybe some things you want).

This is how I phrase it: “Hi. My name is Vicky. I am the possibility of fun, freedom, and generosity. I work as a counselor.” When I am being those characteristics, it creates an opening for others to feel fun, free, and generous, allowing me to do what needs to be done, and have the things I want out of life (satisfaction of great career, etc.). I’m not claiming to be perfect at this just yet, (See a previous post about perfection.) but when I seriously make the effort, good things happen. It’s a process to make progress, not perfection.