I am sitting here at my computer, home with the mumps. After asking the universe for many things it finally listens and gives me the mumps. This is a blessing in disguise. A few weeks ago I lost my mother to cancer, at age 60, and have been pushing myself and my body to quickly recover from such a huge loss. I am enjoying life’s mandatory rest and recuperation that the disease (Dis-Ease) provides.
Living through the personal crisis of my mother’s illness, I have come to question how I am affected by my spiritual beliefs. The journey has had many “flight or fight” moments when I had to choose which direction to take in dealing with the impending loss of my mother. I chose to start where I felt most comfortable, in researching the disease and what I needed to gain control of the situation. I found no real choice. As the cancer spread, so did my loss of control. No one but perhaps God has the power to stop such an illness in its path. I did have the choice in how this would affect my spirit and in turn how I could help my mother live her remaining days.
There were times (and still are) when I choose to run from the horrible experiences instead of embracing them. I am not always grateful for the learning they bring. It seems that sometimes a person just needs to sit back and allow the entire process to unfold and to give in to the pain in order to move forward. Death has a way of encouraging you to evaluate many areas of life, and for me, one was that of my spiritual realm. I began to ask myself, questions like: "What are my spiritual beliefs? What is spirituality to me? How does this affect my work with youth?"
I believe strongly that I chose to be a youth care worker, and that my spirituality influenced this decision. Youth care is about being present in the moment with young people, being where they live their lives. It is about understanding the whole individual and looking beyond the behaviours that we might encounter on a day-to-day basis (Garfat, 2003). It only makes sense that we need to integrate the spiritual world into our work with youth, if we are interested in creating internal change, and not just behavioural change.
As stated by the Center for Spiritual Growth (Blumenkratz, 2007), it is "incumbent upon us to help young people create a relationship with spirit." Spirit shows up in everything that we do and choose not to do. So, why would this not hold true for troubled youth?
It is commonly accepted that using spiritual practice improves coping skills, increases hope, reduces depression and anxiety, and promotes healthy behaviours. The integration of a spiritual dimension supports the development of a sense of connection and wholeness in young people that leads to inner peace and confidence. The youth need to be guided to begin seeking relationships and activities that have deeper meaning. If we do not provide the guidance, young people may seek to fill the void with violence, cynicism, materialism, or with nicotine, drugs and alcohol (Blumenkrantz, 2007). Is this not the ultimate goal or mission in our work?
Before I begin to explore how I believe spirit plays a role in how we do youth care, I would like to offer the following explanation of what spirituality is, from The Center for Spiritual Growth:
"The foundation of our spirituality is defined as having a deep, joy-filled sense of connection with and wonder about the world and universe..."
Young adolescents seem consciously or unconsciously to begin searching for opportunities for “awakening”. Coming to terms with this awakening is one of the challenges of adolescence. This awakening can have a profound impact on the individual and the world. For youth, their identity and sense of self is forged in relationship to the larger community of people, the natural world, and the greater universe. (Blumenkratz, 2007)
The word “spirituality” is often used interchangeably with “religion”. I am not disputing that for some people, they are the same. For me, I have come to believe that it is more about learning to understand my place in the world. It is my way of being or existing, and how I offer hope to others along with a sense of being valued. I believe that the process of integrating spirituality into our everyday lives is more about learning how we can be with others in a way that has meaning for them.
I made the decision during my mother’s illness to demonstrate my personal attitude towards life through use of humour and positive thinking. This is how I lived each day, filled with gratitude for what I had in the moment, and not what the future would inevitably bring. My mother chose the same attitude, and amazed everyone by doubling her life expectancy.
My work as a youth care supervisor became a focal point for me, a refuge from the turmoil at home. I was able to maintain a positive outlook when it came to my work with the youth. I believe in the resiliency of youth and my ability to “not sweat the small stuff” when dealing with their behaviours. Nurturing and humour effectively helped manage their behaviours, demonstrating my commitment to their overall spirit. I was able to look beyond their behaviours while they attempted to triumph over the hand they were dealt in life. Most of our youth have to fight against a disease of their own; living without family, battling their demons, and relying on us, the healing professionals, to help guide their way to recovery. Many of the youth with whom we work are not yet capable of understanding the complexities of their spirit self. They are more tempted to blame others than to look inwards for change.
When I became a youth care supervisor my own supervisor, Ernie Hilton, was unsure as to whether I could distinguish between my feeling side and my thinking side. He felt that in order to be an effective supervisor, I would need to be able to incorporate both into my style. He felt that if I could learn to do this, I might be able to supervise without "crushing my spirit". The process of moving to a supervisory position with many previously “co-workers” was a challenge. It only became easier when I understood what I was being taught by my own supervisor. He always said that, "in order to feel safe in a relationship, one must challenge the other person, but yet in order to challenge one must first feel safe." I never fully understood or really wanted to look at this until it became a forced learning experience. I again decided that I would lead by example, and help others learn not only about the youth with whom we work, but also about themselves and their spirit self.
Entering into the supervision process with youth care workers is about working with the individual as a whole and not just about work performance. Due to the intimate nature of the work (being about relationships), a lot of time is spent in supervision discussing self-awareness, and past familial relationships. The conversations center on how these influence the work with youth. With one youth care worker, for example, we were working on his need to have control with the youth and the team. After self-exploration on his part, it became apparent that he was experiencing a lack of control in other areas of his life, hence the need for control at work. He chose to leave his position, move home with family and work on relationship building. He hoped that this would help with his future self-awareness that is needed to be an effective youth care worker.
The difficult work that we do with children involves truly understanding ourselves, and our beliefs, which, I believe, includes our spirituality. (Fewster, 1990) You do not often hear people describe being supervised by their supervisor as a "spiritual journey", but for me it has been just that. For me, and hopefully for those that I am privileged to supervise, learning from being with the youth and being a small part of who they become spiritually, will have an impact on who we choose to be in the future. I have learned so much about who I am from the youth themselves. They have taught me much.
A person can live life working in a job that they tolerate on a daily basis, or they can choose to learn about themselves while helping others discover who they are capable of becoming. I am so glad and privileged that I chose to be a youth care worker! I believe that if every youth care worker explored the concept of spirituality in their work this self-reflection could lead to a better understanding of how to be with those we serve.
The quote below is one I read at my mother’s funeral, and one that I believe epitomizes the work we do when spiritual influences are invited into our work.
"When we die, what we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." (Albert Pike 19th century poet/writer)
Garfat, T. (Ed.)(2003) A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.
Fewster, G. (1990) Being in Child Care: A Journey into Self. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.
Blumenkrantz, D.G. (2007). Rites of Passage: Pathways to Spirituality for Adolescents. Available at http://www.spiritualdevelopmentcenter.org/Display.asp?Page=ritesofpassage