A missing key

Just recently, I happened to stumble back upon David Howe’s A Brief Introduction to Social Work Theory. A treasure given to me as a first year graduate student, I discovered I left the last few chapters pertaining to relationship-based Social Work unread. It was here that I found my intro to this post.

Howe discusses the dual-faced nature of Social Work as “representing the individual to society and representing society to the individual” (p.152), which he further reduces to the single words of “care” and “control”. The former is the client’s presenting problem, while the latter is the system’s motivation for providing that care. Howe then demonstrates how the latter has taken precedent over the former in the last forty years, summarized with this bomb:

“What has happened since the late 1970s is that many liberal, capitalist economies have put the emphasis on freedom, individuality and personal responsibility. This has improved material productivity and increased national wealth. However, it has decreased overall levels of happiness and wellbeing. And because social work has been subject to the same changes that have led to performance, target-driven, micro-managed practices across all the health, welfare, educational and justice services, it lost faith in the value of relationship-driven practices.”

All across society, relationships are being lost, replaced with facsimiles that fail to satisfy the deepest longings of humanity. Time and again, I find a strong correlation between the quality and quantity of a client’s relationships and their various presenting problems, leading to my angst concerning social work’s increasing failure to build this word “community”. However, I differ from Howe’s identification of the cultural shift towards an individualistic view as a primary root of the problem. Rather, I believe our shift towards an individualist culture is causing a loss of collective understanding towards a singular word, a loss that is the true root of the problem.

That word is “love”.

There is no word more misunderstood than this word “love”. Love is a feeling, but it is also an action. Love is exemplified in a relationship, but no single relationship exemplifies love in totality: you may love your spouse, but if you love a stranger as your spouse, you’ll likely become divorced! Love implies certain characteristics (1 Cor 13:4-7 is a classic description used in many memes), but identifying the elements is not the same as understanding love, just like identifying a person by their appearance does not mean you know the person.

My intent here is not to go into a lengthy diatribe defining this word. The reason is simple: no amount of words, however carefully defined, will ever produce illumination for the reader. If you want to increase your understanding of love, you can only do this through the trial and error of practice. As any good social worker knows, if we are going to engage in a practice of some kind, we need a practice model. Thankfully, we don’t have to look far.

“The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way that we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering.”

In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm illustrates that any art contains two essential components: theory and practice. You can read the first few chapters of his book for the theory behind the practice (or, alternatively, read Howe’s work, cited above). Fromm’s tenets are nothing new, as an ample amount of literature spanning centuries testifies too. What is relatively new, and extremely useful, is Fromm’s practice model.

As Fromm points out, before we can begin to examine the practice model, we first have to recognize that “love” is most closely equated to the word “give”. Any act of love, if it is truly love, will contain the hallmark of giving. Pure love is an altruistic action: although there is almost always a return on investment (the more you give, the more you get), the act does not take into account any potential return. The most pure example I can offer is a mother giving to her child: she isn’t thinking of any potential benefit, but only what her child needs.

Having the desire and willingness to give is an essential component of love, but is far from complete. To give as a truly altruistic act, Fromm identifies four key elements which must be present. These elements are:

  • Care – Fromm defines care as “the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love…one loves that for which one labors, and one labors for that which one loves.” If we are not moved to care, we will not take the time and energy to give.
  • Knowledge – if I don’t have knowledge of a person, including the challenges (s)he faces, then my “care” is nothing more than sympathy. While better than nothing at all, “sympathy” becomes empathy when care is welded to knowledge. Conversely, knowledge without care is simply information, and is empty in regards to love.
  • Respect – if I have care and knowledge, but not respect, I am apt to either minimize the needs of another, or err in the opposite direction by rushing in and addressing needs without regard to self-determination. Respect is the ability to see a person as they truly are and where they are at in their life, rather than what we think they should be, or what we want them to be.
  • Responsibility – often confused with “duty”, responsibility means being able and ready to respond voluntarily rather than by compulsion (I give because I want to, not because I have to). It is a state of readiness combined with mindfulness derived from care, knowledge, and respect.

As with all art, love is never perfected, only improved. Continual improvement requires careful and diligent practice, a dedication of a person’s whole being without regard to mood or distractions. As Fromm notes:

“If the art is not something of supreme importance, the apprentice will never learn it. He will remain, at best, a good dilettante, but will never become a master…If one wants to become a master at any art, one’s whole life must be devoted to it, or at least related to it. One’s own person becomes an instrument in the practice of the art, and must be kept fit, according to the specific functions it has to fulfill.”

I suspect the loss of this word “love” in practice is partially due to the other side of the social work dilemma: the question of control. Love, in practice, leads to unpredictable outcomes which are hard to control! A prime example is found in natural disasters: in some of humanity’s greatest tragedies, many have been moved by the love an individual or group exhibited on behalf of the stricken, transforming individual lives in spite of the tragedy.

Although many in this profession are surrendering to the dictates of various auspices (mostly driven by money), I find myself increasingly resistant to this pressure. To ignore care in favor of control is to lose the soul of social work. If this continues, social work, as a profession, is destined to the dustbin of history: a promising ideal which never found sustainable footing.

Are you a good social worker? How good is your art?

3 thoughts on “A missing key

  1. Well, look what popped up on my RSS reader. I haven’t seen one of your posts for a long time.

    Welcome back to the blogosphere.

    I remember when businesses used to say “the customer is always right.” Now it has become “the stockmarket is always right.” We have become far more impersonal. It used to be that the owner of the corner store would personally greet customers. But now it is the clerk at the supermarket who only wants to see your credit card. And technology has made it worse — we chat with people over email instead of face-to-face.

    I guess I was fortunate, as an educator. It was still face-to-face. But even there we see technology making a lot of it more impersonal.

    Yet there still seem to be many loving people around. It’s just that the way we relate to one another has changed.

    • Thanks Neil. I wondered if anybody would notice if I published again. Question answered! My focus of writing has changed a lot since last time and may not interest you, but I’ll let you judge that. I agree: relationships have become impersonal due to technology, along with many other things (some of which I will write about) and, as a result, our overall quality of our love for others has suffered for it. The practice model is a method for addressing that.

      • I’ll be keeping your blog in my RSS reader for now. When you don’t post, I won’t notice that, though I suppose it uses a few cpu cycles to check. And when you do post, it shows up.

        I guess I’ll be seeing that new focus.

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