Thursday, May 12, 2011

Paradise Found

Last week I had a very enjoyable vacation on an island paradise. The water was warm, the beaches were pristine, and I even saw me some ‘gators.

Those who know me well (or even not so well) know that it appears my mind can’t stop racing, even in such a relaxing environment. In fact this isn’t true at all. Apparently as all men do – I have a “nothing box.”

While in paradise, I did however pull out my “work box” for a few moments.

Specifically, I was thinking about my co-workers, and the ability of so many of them to achieve and make a difference in a very difficult environment.

These thoughts were initially prompted by casual conversations with strangers at restaurants and local watering holes that quickly turned, as they often do, to the question, “so, what do you do?”

When I answered that I worked for an organization that serves individuals with one or more developmental disabilities, I would usually see eyes glaze over, and my conversation partners would move swiftly to find another subject to talk about. The truth is, most of the people I spoke with didn’t want to know what I do, nor did they want to hear anything about the population my organization serves. They preferred a willful ignorance.

Now, you could just say that was because they were on vacation or because they lived in a place that doesn’t exactly lend itself to a great deal of reflection on some of society’s stickier issues. Issues such as how to provide some of our most vulnerable citizens the skills and tools they need to contribute to their communities, or who is responsible for providing those skills and tools.

But the thing is, that kind of reaction doesn’t just occur when I’m on vacation. My experience is that most people don’t take an interest in, or even want to think about, their own roles, responsibilities, and obligations when it comes to including individuals with one or more developmental disabilities in the fabric of their communities.

That leads me back to my appreciation of my co-workers’ ability to succeed under often extremely challenging circumstances. People who commit themselves to a life of community service are choosing a difficult path. The job is tough, the pay is low, and many in the public at large are mostly apathetic and uninterested in what they do (or why they do it).

And yet, I have found the people who work in the field of developmental disabilities are some of the smartest people I know, endowed with an almost unquenchable curiosity that time after time leads to creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

I have a theory that may surprise you as to why so many in our field are able to be successful. Obviously, it is not because of financial rewards. But here’s what might surprise you – I would also argue that it is not just a commitment to those we serve that leads to success, or a commitment to “do good.” Sure, those commitments have their place, but in my experience the employees and organizations that achieve the greatest success have a different sort of commitment – a commitment to each other. When employees are committed to each other they serve their organizations, and their communities, better.

I have find that often that commitment comes with an element of “us against the world” or even “us against the organization.” Certainly at Imagine! there are those who don’t always agree with me or the direction the company is taking. On more than one occasion, employees with a commitment to each other have been able to change my mind and even change the direction we’re going by working together and succeeding in demonstrating that their way is the right way. Believe it or not, I actually welcome that attitude, and even encourage it when the opportunity arises.

So as beautiful as my island paradise was, and as much as I enjoyed my time there, it reminded me where paradise can truly be found, at least for me - right here at Imagine!, working alongside a group of employees truly dedicated to each other and to providing the best possible services they can. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

(By the way, this in no way means I won’t continue to take the occasional vacation – I will probably have my “nothing box” out and need another reminder on this subject before too long).

Then again, what do I know?

1 comment:

  1. Richard Lowe, CLSMay 31, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    Over the years I have wondered what common denominators we who work at Imagine! share. Clearly we value service, being part of a purpose beyond ourselves, and being willing to do so with significant financial limitations. Yet our often unspoken common denominator is compassion, born from understanding; and really, is compassion born any other way? Those who have developmental disabilities often live with feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, not belonging or mattering, shame, and being shunned. How many Imagine! employees are highly experienced in these feelings? I would guess a very high percentage.

    Care-Giving people must be able to identify with those being offered care. In a way, caring becomes an expression of compassion for ourselves. Our culture lionizes strength, speed, aptitude, competition, domination, and winning at any cost. Anything which stands in the way of these “Winner” qualities can easily become projected onto others as Shadow, taboo, or scapegoat: weakness, slowness, reduced comprehension, reduced ability to compete. Many people keep even these thoughts at arm’s length, apparently afraid that even beholding them will somehow lead to “Loser” status. The irony is that if we live long enough, we’ll all experience “Loser” qualities as we prepare to slip this mortal coil.

    Care-Givers however, know these feelings well, often profoundly. Yet many have learned to transmute these feelings of helplessness, weakness, etc. into strengths. I consider this to be a spiritual process: one which requires embracing external and internal realities entirely as they are right now; for only in this embrace of the present do we gain the courage to realize our greatest gifts. Helplessness blossoms into Humility. Weakness unfolds into Understanding. Slowness flowers into Patience. Frustration becomes stone-cracking Determination.

    “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

    --Aboriginal proverb

    People often avoid thinking about those who have developmental disabilities because they are terrified of their own weakness, shame, and hopelessness. Until we have dwelled with these states within ourselves, we will recoil from and project onto others. Once embraced and transmuted, the gifts of loving attention, patience, compassion, and determined courage pour forth.
    As giving becomes a fundamental expression of compassion for ourselves and then others, it becomes less and less optional.

    “That which is not given is lost.”

    --Attributed to many

    My liberation is tied together with yours. That is why I’m here.