It’s been a while, y’all. As I write this, I’m nearing the end of my first semester of graduate school, which means I’m already nearly a quarter of the way done (what?!). Let me tell you, it’s been a whirlwind. I went from working full-time in a job I loved to being a student again. My free time and any prior sense of mastery, belonging, or financial stability that I felt I had went out the window as soon as I stepped foot onto campus this past August. While to some of you five years may not feel like a long time, reclaiming my status as a student after a half decade hiatus has felt very foreign to me.
Stepping away from a role that felt so right to me was—and continues to be—incredibly challenging. Despite the fact that I am pursuing my master’s degree in social work in order to further my competency as a helper and advocate for the mission of the organization I worked for, sometimes I can’t help but feel like I’m being selfish, putting important work on pause just to add a few letters to my name. Staying in the same community I’ve lived and worked in has been equal parts comforting and unsettling. Many of my close friends have moved out of state, I am living alone for the first time, and my home is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the beloved people who were once on my caseload. I have been blessed with the ability to stay on with my organization part-time, but my packed schedule has made it difficult for me to work more than a couple of hours a week, on a good week. This transition has opened up a void in me that can feel hard to sit with some days.
Being the new kid on the block, may it be in a new city, a new school, or a new job, can feel very dysregulating. Over the past few months, a lot of my time has been spent second guessing myself, asking questions like “Do I belong here? Does everyone hate me? Am I talking too much? Is this really a good idea?” This [natural] adjustment conundrum combined with studying social work has led me to lean on my support system more than I’m used to. When it comes to the process of becoming a social worker, the bulk of the work involves self-reflection and refinement. In other words, beyond being hyper-vigilant about the impression I’m making on new colleagues and instructors, I am also now professionally required to engage in a lifelong mission of becoming the best version of myself.
This semester, I had to write a “personal narrative” about my life and heritage, which delved into my personal relationship with racism, pride, and oppression. I’m continually being asked to explain how I arrived at my opinions and beliefs across every sector. I’m spending fifteen hours a week in an intensely emotionally challenging internship with no prior comparable experience. Some of my ongoing assignments involve writing down pages and pages of conversations I’ve engaged in with clients and friends, then receiving feedback from multiple supervisors, instructors, and classmates. I’m learning (quickly and arduously) to choose my words more carefully. To understand why I do what I do and identify new areas within me that need to be strengthened. It feels like I’m under a microscope, being asked who I want to be and being held accountable for the influence I have in the lives of those around me.
Beyond unpacking what one of my professors calls the “little red wagon” each of us drags along behind us in our daily lives, this program has demanded that I pay close attention to the news and explore other human rights and social justice issues that I had avoided taking a closer look at in the past. Previously siloed in my location within the nonprofit sector, protected by my own privilege, it seems I thought I could carry on shielding myself from the rest of the suffering in the world. Over the past few months, though, I have begun to learn about issues and raise questions related to gender, sexuality, race, mental illness, incarceration…the list goes on. Once you have this information, what do you do with it? You’re only one person, you sure as hell can’t tackle it all. Why even bother trying to make a difference in such a broken world? “How do we live with what we know?” This seems to be the reverberating question among social work students.
I won’t attempt to regurgitate everything I’ve learned in my first semester in a blog post, don’t worry, but I will tie this together by honing in on a little something I’m coming to understand about words. Bear with me here. First, when you really think about it, aren’t all words really just metaphors? Now, I’ve hit you with a pretty *heavy dose* of obvious metaphors (ha, see what I did there?) in this post so far, but if you let yourself dig a little deeper, you might begin to ask yourself: what is language but a means of expressing how we feel? Isn’t every language just a given culture’s way of communicating experience? What are letters but symbols crafted by humans in an attempt to share one’s internal experience with another? This brings me to the second part of my thought here, which is: do words even matter without relationship? What is a word worth if only one person has assigned it meaning? If someone scribbled an unfamiliar squiggle on a piece of paper and asked you to translate it, what would it take for you to legitimize their scribble as a word? Another person’s ability to make sense of it?
How do we live with what we know? How do we live with what we know?
It’s so easy to feel “stuck” (another metaphor) in a line of questioning like this. It can feel impossible to make sense of how or why to move forward when you open yourself up to the pain and suffering in the world. To me, the “how” in this sentence is a figure of speech—part of a metaphor—as, in reality, we are living. And to respond to that metaphorical “how,” I believe that we can lean on the second part of this understanding of language for guidance. That is, we can recognize that life is devoid of meaning outside relationship—that we truly cannot “live with what we know” without each other—or not with much joy, anyway. It’s about the people, the other living, breathing creatures around us. It’s the wagging tail I come home to at the end of a long day. It’s your son or daughter who knows to holds your hand or crawl into bed with you when you’re feeling empty. It’s the flowers and the phone calls, it’s the hugs and the care packages, the “thinking of you” text when life gets busy. The showing up for the people you love.
We may not be able to solve everything, but we can always do something. If you can see that every person matters, you will understand that making life a little brighter for even one person is a success. That’s the fuel, the how we live with what we know. The how we live with what we feel, with what we’ve seen, with what’s to come. It’s you, it’s us.
Thank you. To my people, near and far, and to those I carry with me in spirit. I couldn’t do anything I’m proud of without you.