CYC-Online 87APRIL 2006
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Taking care of ourselves so we can care for others: A challenge for crisis intervention personnel

Jesus F. Reyes

I ask myself a question: “What can I, as keynote speaker, add to this conference?” As I struggled with this question, I recalled a story from my college days.

There was a college senior who was looking for an easy way to meet his last elective requirement in his final semester before graduation. He heard of a theology class where the professor had given the same assignment every semester for several years. Even more attractive was the fact that the class had no other assignments, tests, or pop quizzes. The assignment was always to write an essay in class at the end of the semester. The topic, he had heard, was always the same: “Expound on the forty years Moses spent lost in the desert.”

Being that he was suffering from an acute case of “senioritis,” the student could not resist enrolling in the class. He found that he was not alone; there were over 300 students in the large auditorium for the first day of class. The class was so large, in fact, that the professor announced he never made it a practice to keep track of attendance. “Well,” our student thought, “I don’t even have to come to class. I will simply come to the final exam ready for the essay on Moses.” And so he did.

By the time the final exam day arrived, so blatant had been the student’s disregard for attending class that the professor had realized what was going on. Sure enough, the student came to the final exam and took his place among the other students in the auditorium. He smiled to himself as he thought about this being the easiest three credit hours he had ever earned. As expected, the professor announced that the exam would consist of one essay. Much to the students” surprise, however, the professor announced that the topic would be, “Expound on Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount.” Undeterred, the student began writing and continued doing so for the entire 90 minutes of the test period.

The professor had been watching him closely for the entire time and wondered how in the world the student could be responding. After all the papers had been turned in and the last student had exited, the professor looked for the paper belonging to the habitually absent student. The paper began, “Far be it for me to expound on our Lord's Sermon on the Mount. However, allow me to expound on the forty years Moses spent lost in the desert.”

As I thought of what to say to you this morning, I felt much the same way. Yes, I’ve done a great deal of crisis work in my career, yet I certainly do not presume to be a greater expert than any of you or the many dedicated presenters you will hear this weekend. So I say to you, “far be it for me to talk about crisis work; however, allow me to expand on how I’ve survived and indeed have been reasonably successful through twenty years of crisis work.”

My message is simple: “In a life dedicated to helping others, don’t neglect to take care of yourself.” There are several basic things I try to remember every day.

Live a balanced life
Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer; “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office.” Remember that if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

Remember also what John Lennon wrote before he was gunned down in the driveway of the Dakota: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Anna Quindlen, in her commencement address at Villanova, said: “People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely.”

Don’t let your need to be proactive lead you to anticipate nothing but negatives.

When I find my thoughts being dominated by nothing but catastrophic expectations, I remember what Mark Twain once said: “Most of the things we worry about never happen. That’s why insurance companies are rich.”

Sometimes a respite can make all the difference
Some of my fondest memories of my father are of times we worked together on projects around the house. I was about 16 years old when my father and I spent a Saturday morning installing a window air conditioner in our living room window. We had first built a wooden platform outside the window to support the heavy unit. We then attempted to lift the unit from the ground onto that platform. As hard as we tried, we could not quite lift it high enough. This was a great blow to my 16 year-old ego. My father calmly told me it was time for us to take a break. We sat quietly drinking lemonade for about 15 minutes and then attempted to lift the air conditioning unit again. Much to my surprise, we lifted it easily into place on our first attempt. That lesson has stayed with me and I make it a point to take reasonable breaks whenever I find myself struggling without success at any task.

Don’t take yourself too seriously
As the dedicated “people loving, want-to-work-with-people” types that we all are, there is also an egotistical belief in most of us (I know there is in me) that if we don’t do a job, no one else can do it as well. I’ve learned many times how wrong I am. One of my first supervisors many years ago taught me this lesson. He had been my supervisor, friend and mentor since I had been on the job. One day, he announced he was leaving for a position with a different agency. I was devastated. He told me to remember that all of us are irreplaceable but none of us are indispensable.

Another supervisor noted that I became extremely happy when things went well and extremely distressed when they did not. He told me to remember the simple fact that we never progress as much as we think we progress and we never regress as much as we think we regress. The truth is somewhere in between and may not necessarily be due to anything we do.

Don’t take the weight of the world on your shoulders alone
Remember the lessons from the geese:

Fact: As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an 'uplift' for the following or trailing bird. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Fact: Whenever a goose falls out of formation it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the “lifting power” of the bird immediately in front.

Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose we will stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go (and be willing to accept their help as we help them).

Fact: When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies to the point position

Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership with people.

Fact: The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson: We need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging and not something else.

Don’t complicate life for yourself
During the late fifties and throughout the sixties, seventies, and early eighties, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged, among other things, in a race for supremacy in space. Early on, scientists at NASA realized that the ballpoint pen would not work in space because it relied on gravity. They felt this was a problem that needed to be solved so that our astronauts could make notes of their discoveries in space. A great deal of research over a long time and at much expense resulted in what has come to be known as the “space pen”. It does not require gravity and is now marketed as a pen that writes at any angle. When faced with the same problem of the conventional ballpoint pen, the Soviets approached it from a very different perspective – they issued their cosmonauts pencils.

So, my dear colleagues, enjoy this conference. Learn and grow from all that is offered here. You have chosen to spend this weekend here in search of professional growth. This speaks highly of each and everyone of you. Your decision to be here is testimony to your dedication to your patients and clients.

Next weekend, or wherever time of from your job comes for you, I challenge you to play just as hard as you will work this weekend. Spend time rediscovering your spouses, children, and whatever family you are blessed to have. Spend time with your friends, they are gifts from heaven.

Anna Quindlen described how she attempts a balance between her professional and personal lives:

I am a good mother to three children. I have tried never to let my profession stand in the way of being a good parent. I no longer consider myself the center of the universe. I show up, I listen. I try to laugh. I am a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make marriage vows mean what they say. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh. I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard cutout. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh. I would be rotten, or at best mediocre at my job, if those things were not true.

You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are. So here’s what I wanted to tell you today: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you blew an artery, or found a lump in your breast? Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a cheerio with her thumb and first finger. Get a life in which you are not alone.

Doing all these things, I submit, will speak as highly of you as spending this weekend at this conference. It will also be testimony of your dedication to your patients and clients for only by taking care of yourselves and your personal lives can you be at your best to care for them.

This feature: From a Keynote Address to the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convening of Crisis Intervention Personnel, April 8, 2000, Chicago, by Jesus F Reyes, AM, ACSW, LCSW, Director, Social Service Department, Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois

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