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Life On The Front Lines

From a pretty raw interview with a young woman who does social work in the Tenderloin, the roughest neighborhood in San Francisco:

How does being in the midst of so much mental illness affect you emotionally? 

Man, social work is so fu**ing weird. People think you’re a saint. “It takes a certain person to do that kind of work,” is what I hear a lot. Fu** that. When you’re young, you can afford to have ideals and believe in stuff, and think that what you’re doing matters, but after watching grown men shit themselves and sometimes try to eat their own shit, not to mention the countless number of times I’ve had to pick people off the floor and put them back in their wheelchairs because they’ve been drinking since 6 AM and can’t even sit up straight, your measly 32K salary starts to matter a helluva lot more than social justice.

I think I got into social work because I had this idea of it somehow “killing” my ego. It seems silly, but it felt very real at the time. There’s a sadness to watching your idealism and convictions go to shit. Not to mention that working in such a thankless and fu**ed system will kill a sacred part of you. I feel tired. For the most part, people do not want help. They want money or they want drugs or they want death.

Those last two lines are what stay with me. I have heard a version of this in the past from friends and acquaintances who do this kind of work. They say that most of us like to think that really poor people are like we would be if we didn’t have any money: wanting to live a more or less normal life, but simply needing a financial hand up to stable ground. The truth is a lot more complicated, and discouraging (they say). A lot of people want money, but they don’t want help, and they don’t want to quit living the way they live. Which really complicates things morally and emotionally when you are a service provider for these people.

I think of this bleak principle when I consider the stories a friend of mine tells about the school in which she used to teach. She burned out chiefly because no matter what she did, the students didn’t care. Just did not care. Came from poor homes, pretty much, in which the parent (there were rarely two parents) didn’t care how the kids did in school, and didn’t really care how they did in life. She described a futile situation that sounded to me like a teacher trying to teach music to deaf children. The whole thing did a number on her idealism.

(Via The Browser.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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