Monthly Archives: October 2013

No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga

If there is one thing that all human beings crave it is relationships. From birth we learn to rely on our care taker (whoever that may be) to fill our most basic needs- food, clothes, and shelter. As we move on in life our needs increase, evolve and are (hopefully) met by many people- a friend to assist in finishing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a bad breakup, a mentor to help navigate the career path of our choice, a significant other to share in our successes, failures, and all of the other tedious and frustrating moments in between. While these needs may seem to grow increasingly more complex with time, when you break it down it is all about human connection.

As a case planner at a Residential Treatment Facility, I work primarily with 16-21 year old boys who come from all walks of life, various foster care placements, and unique family dynamics. What they all have in common is traumatic life experiences. In children who experience trauma, studies show that even one positive relationship  -whether it be with a teacher, coach, or relative, can significantly impact that child’s ability to form trusting relationships.

For the young adults that I work with, the struggle to first believe in the possibility of healthy relationships and to next find these relationships, can be daunting. When helping the residents through their struggle to trust, and subsequent disappointment whether it be in their family, the System or themselves, I generally stick to two key phrases.  They are  “Accept What You Cannot Change” and “Hurt People Hurt People.” Of course when I reflect on my personal experience of true loss and disappointment, I realize how difficult it is to actually apply these phrases.

I have constantly heard that the most rewarding part of Social Work is that you will learn more from the people you work with than they will learn from you. In the few months that I have been working, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined.

Month 1:

On one of my first days at work, we pick up our resident, Jose*, who from the day I met him seemed to be wise beyond his 16 years.

I first met Jose when we sat next to each other on a chaotic bus ride from an agency outing.  As the majority of kids screamed, fought, and in one case even broke down and cried, he quietly showed me a bracelet that a Veteran had made him in appreciation of training a Service Dog. On the bracelet were letters of the dog’s name.  Around us, as the scene erupted with a resident kicking open the back door of the bus while cursing at staff and sounding off an alarm, I looked over at Jose’s bracelet and could not help but smile despite the chaos.  To this day, Jose continues to wear it. 

We travel to the site of Jose’s family team conference (a meeting to discuss his progress in foster care as well as the progress towards his permanency goal). Jose’s grandmother Ms. Rodriguez* greets us. They exchange the obligatory one shoulder hug most teenagers pull-half forced, half sincere.

The boys I work with almost all have a goal of APPLA, otherwise known as “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement.” While there are several possible permanency goals including but not limited to return to parent/caretaker, and adoption, most who have been cycled between placements and rejected for most of their life finally and understandably arrive at the goal of independent living- one where they alone seemingly have complete control over their future. Jose, on the other hand is one of the few who has a goal of return to caretaker.

Almost immediately Ms. Rodriguez asks to use the bathroom. We all discuss the VMAS from the night before in her absence. Eventually the ACS Facilitator arrives.  It is time to get down to business and the tension is palpable.

“Jose, I understand that we are here today to change your goal from return to family to APPLA.   Do we all understand what that means?” My colleague who has worked at the agency for some time and is clearly familiar with the case, with Ms. Rodriguez and most importantly with Jose (well beyond my pleasant interaction on the bus) speaks on behalf of Ms. Rodriguez who is elderly and ill and explains her inability to supervise Jose as initially agreed upon.

Ms. Rodriguez is a woman whose wrinkles are a testament of the struggles I can only imagine she has endured. She is the matriarch of the family, with a silent strength, but after raising a family, enduring tragedy and incarcerations, and now her own illness, is tired.  Jose, in contrast, is young- wide-eyed and angry. Jose cannot understand this decision- disgruntled statements such as “I know you’re active” “You don’t want me” and “I just want an honest answer” are muttered under his breath. Ms. Rodriguez is visibly hurt, but can only muster the strength to state, “I just want what is best for you. If you do not believe me, you are better off without me.”

In that moment one of my over recycled mantras comes to life- “Hurt People Hurt People.” Both Ms. Rodriguez and Jose have been rejected and consequently they reject. I begin to panic about the communication breakdown that is overpowering the conference. I understand Jose’s feelings of rejection and his grandmother’s inability to care for him. I myself have been guilty of the human impulse to reject before rejected. (tweetable) I remember the “Hey Jude” quote that seems to plague us all at one point or another-“you know it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

I visualize the conversation I will have with Jose. I will remind him that he deserves a family and walk him through other options such as the adoption process, re-iterate how much his grandmother has demonstrated that she cares by traveling to every conference and court date, and encourage him to stay in touch with her. Before I can utter a word, the conference ends, we sign the sheet, and exit the room.

We leave separately and no one speaks. Ms. Rodriguez stops to get fruit at a local bodega.  As we are walking to our car, Jose crosses paths with his Grandma, his eyes lighting up instantly-“Abuela- your fruit is going to topple over!” He adjusts her bag, moves the fruit around so that it is more secure, and they hug each other goodbye. This is no half-hearted teenage hug. It is all sincerity. At that moment I know that Jose and Ms. Rodriguez will be okay, and they will work things out on their own without me lifting a finger.  For after all the crux of healthy relationships is not perfection, it is messing up, occasionally drifting apart, but loving each other enough to get back to where we need to be. 

When doing this work, I remember a proverb that I picked up while studying in Spain: “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” (tweetable) It was one of the many that I was fixated on memorizing, a small sample of life lessons that my “Madre” would serve up nightly at dinners, with a fair share of wine and paella as she processed her recent divorce, and one which I channel when I am on the brink of becoming jaded. It is a phrase with many meanings but one message: “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “When one door closes another opens.” “There is no bad from which good will not come.”(tweetable) The choice of translation is of course up to the listener.

The most powerful thing I have taken from the young adults and families that I work with it is how to be strong in the face of rejection and resilient in the face of life’s un-anticipated struggles. I have learned the importance of picking oneself up and surviving when it seems impossible, and sometimes if you are lucky, re-building those bridges that were so badly burned you never thought they would stand again. After all, no hay mal que por bien no venga, whatever that may mean…

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals referenced.

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A Secret Art of Thinking

 “For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect…

meditationWithin Siddhartha there slowly grew and ripened the knowledge of what wisdom really was and the goal of his long seeking. It was nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life. ” – Herman Hesse

So I’m sure by this point each of us has become all too closely acquainted with the fact that change is not easy… for anyone. In fact we are so averse to the concept that it is quite possibly the hardest thing anyone could ask us to do. In life, we are all faced daily with a glaring contradiction between this culturally induced, irrational fear and the knowledge that life and all that it is comprised of is as transitory as transitory can be. A series of changes has brought each and every one of us to the point we now stand and will continue to push us with varying degrees of force to propel us forward on this winding path. When we resist rather than confront the inevitable changes of our lives, we preclude ourselves from embracing them as lessons and opportunities that the universe is purposely setting into place for us to overcome in order to become. To change is to grow; to live, and the faster we could all come to terms with this the better off we would be. Obviously easier said then done, I have found that deliberately doing AND saying things that are consistent with this natural law of life often makes it easier to accept over time. Perhaps that is why the inward change I recently experienced was welcomed rather than met with opposition.  Uncannily enough, this deep perspective shift happened to coincide with my completion of Siddhartha, so, naturally, I was compelled to write a blog post about it;)

I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say that something simply clicked within me throughout the course of this week and I feel drenched – as though everything is sinking into my porous and unquenchable spongy self. I’m really (finally) settling in to myself and my job and my life here in the concrete jungle I was initially very quick to renounce. To me, it was pretty damn ironic I had somehow ended up living and working in a city that I was weary of from the outset- quick to determine that I did not vibe with the trash ridden urban sprawl of New York’s boroughs, nor with its overwhelming millions of hasty, corporate-minded and consumerist residents. With its pockets of immense wealth juxtaposed to the rampant homelessness among many other blatant reminders of societal abandonment in other, less rummaged, ones, I found it hard to reconcile my face-value judgments with the image of New York held by the international imaginary as the ultimate testing ground for immigrants’ high hopes nestled in the American meritocracy. It is no secret that people the world 0ver subscribe to the belief that New York is the cradle of hope and opportunity, Wall St. and Broadway. Of course, I was definitely drawn by the appeal of its alternate persona- the hundred years of history, art and culture produced in the Harlem Renaissance and the incredible and timeless feats of civil rights activism that occurred on the very streets I casually stroll daily.  I cannot deny that my new place of residence lives up to its reputation as the most lively, diverse cultural hotbed for incredible musicians, artists, 20-something activists and entrepreneurs from all walks of life drawn together in this one anomalous place. I tried to convince myself that there truly was no better time than my post-grad point in life to experience this (despite the fact that I’m broker than broke), that it wouldn’t make sense to go hole up in Rural, Nowheresville… no matter how badly I missed (miss)  trees. But my strong convictions called for far more than just a little convincing. The entire process of slowly digging beyond this outsider perspective involved whopping amounts of reframing on my part, forcibly re-angling my vantage points and squinting like mad to discover new ways of appreciating the nuances operating behind and emanating from the nonstop chaos in the streets and the towering trash piles and even in the various smells that waft from every direction in this city of nightmare-esque dreams.

You know that whole grace period you give yourself to acclimate after a huge life transition? I feel like some of them end more subtly than others. Since the moment I moved to New York, I have been engaged in this agonizingly gradual process of habituation- consistently trying to reflect on all of these face-value reactions, thoughts and consequent opinions I’ve been forming and collecting. I repeat the spiel in my head, the premeditated mantras I give to those that ask me how I am adjusting, what I am doing now, and why. As I have a ridiculous amount of commute time, I often find myself reflecting on them in a sea of sleep-deprived strangers that, for however brief a period of time, are all forced together in that small physical and temporal space; each one a different and complicated protagonist in the play of their own lives. Plays in which we all only stand in as momentary extras that odds say will probably never be seen again. It is strange, but I began to realize that this precise setting, one that I so easily denounced as an annoying inconvenience, was actually a rich and nutrient environment in which to plant small seeds of appreciation.


From within the hurried crowds began to sprout small saplings of recognition that certain preconceptions I was using as defenses no longer rang true. At some point or another I had, in fact, completely out-grown the opinions I had clung to so strongly before. I began to recognize that the very same principles I had been operating within professionally were also starting to apply to the deepest depths of my own personal development.

Through a series of serendipitous and organic moments of connection, and conversely- disconnection (read: singing and dancing in the Times Square subway station and truly paying no mind to anyone else around me), I found that I deeply appreciated how liberated in the anonymity I was beginning to feel. Being my “grit and bear it” type self, I honestly was not anticipating ever reaching a point where I would be able to say this about any aspect of New York. But my preconceived notions about myself and the people and place around me were the only things that managed to delay this realization of the beauty, value and freedom in the bustling life all around me here. I have come to find that my days are filled to the brim with such constant, new and genuinely diverse and incredible stimulation everywhere I turn, and in that so many opportunities to connect with the people who supply it; to surprise them; to make their day just by acknowledging their worth and our sameness despite the fact that we are strangers that happen to be in completely different walks of life… I had a hankering from the start but every moment of my days here really just emphasizes the mere fact that we are ALL THE DAMN SAME. With each his own but glaringly similar “vanities, desires and trivialities”. It’s actually sad to see how taken aback people are when I just take the time to ask them about themselves or their families, to simply listen and try to convey how genuinely thankful I am for whatever interaction or transaction we share, even if it’s just being open to chat as we wait for the subway at 3am. And then to see it reciprocated every time (mostly in the form of free food, which has been awesome) just solidifies how grateful they are to be recognized as human- to not be devalued just because of their job or position in society, something, I have found, that is not taken for granted here in the city.


And wouldn’t ya know, all of this just so happens to relate to the most basic and amazing aspect of our roles within the world of Social Work. This pure drive to humanize and empower families simply by showing them empathy, respect, and letting them know that they are not alone in what they face, no matter how much our individualistic culture forces them to believe otherwise. I am of the belief that this egalitarian approach to humanity as one unified and powerful community organism can and should be spread beyond the families that we work with in our professional context, for both their and our own sakes. It is something that has easily bled into my perceptions in a lot of ways and its exciting to be in such an anomalous place that allows me to practice it daily and with everyone that the universe puts me into contact with- for however long or short a time. To have so many opportunities to share all these powerful moments of warmth and positivity with people allowed me to realize how my spirit could be nourished, rather than defaced, by the bountiful ecology of New York City. It basically felt as though I had discovered the most perfectly fabulous pair of prescription sunglasses at the Salvation Army- the ones that allow me to see and experience the world in the perfect tint of appreciation and acceptance (which turns out to be this lovely and iridescent shade of tangerine). In more ways than I can explain, this has helped me to deal with this crazy transition into my adult life as a Preventive Case Planner in Harlem- not only helping to quell the random bouts of loneliness and emotional distress but simultaneously allowing myself to remove the barricades I think we all surround ourselves in to be able to share in that consciousness of unity and oneness that envelopes the world. Sure, I’m cohabitating with mice in an 8′ by 14′ office space and I’m stressing about the realizations I have slowly been making about this field and our limited role within it. But, all in all, that seems like a pretty palatable corollary of mastering this secret and sacred art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of this fleetingly beautiful life.




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