When out in the world, meeting people or socializing, we are often asked “what do you do?” Meaning for a living, of course. This is one of my very least favorite questions. Perhaps as a result of many years of not having a sound answer to give, a prolonged period of continuing my own search for a meaningful way to use my life. Perhaps because I find it so reductive. As if that is all we are or what is most important about us.
I would much rather be asked, “What makes you really really happy?” Or “What is the last thing you did that felt adventurous or scary?” Those are more fun. At any rate, my answer, “I’m an oncology social worker” is met with a narrow range of responses. Ranging from “that must be hard” to “that must be sad” to “Oh…. I’m getting another drink, would you like one?” With only a few exceptions, people really don’t know what to say. And that’s ok. They should have asked me about my last adventure, instead.
There is a notion that is talked about a lot in social work. And that’s the notion of self-care. It is broadly intended to create space, to give permission, and to invite us to do things that are fun, fulfilling, simple, and replenishing when we are not working. A way to “fill the well”, in a manner of speaking. For some, it’s yoga. For others, time with family and friends. It could be anything, really. From watching movies to cleaning your house, if it feels good and is on your terms, it can be counted as “self-care”.
The thing is, that I think we are missing the boat a little bit. In a culture where we first ask people we have met, “what do you do?”, work is central to our lives. If you are working full time, you are putting in 40-50 hours a week of work. That doesn’t count the commute time or prep time getting to and from that place of employment. Your work accounts for the vast majority of your waking hours in the world. If “self-care” happens outside of that, outside of doing groceries and laundry, outside of cooking dinner and cleaning your house (for those of you who don’t experience that as self-care), then we aren’t talking about a lot. Self-care must be and is still in the backseat.
Which leads me to wonder, is it not possible that work can hold self-care, too? If we choose work that we love. That fulfills us, that gives as much or more than it takes, cannot those 40-50 hours a week hold the opportunity to replenish and remind us of why we chose the work we did?
Speaking to one of my interns yesterday, during what was her last formal supervision of the school year, I encouraged her, above all else, to do work that she loves. Whatever that may be. Because–and I can only speak as a social worker here — no one chooses this work because they don’t want to make a difference. No one chooses this work to be complacent or indifferent. We choose it because we believe the world can look differently and that we are the person to make that happen. And if we are doing it right it is hard work, but more importantly, it is heart work. We connect and give of ourselves, and it gives back to us, too. The work is the self care.
Sometimes, when students are graduating, with that shiny new Masters of Social Work degree under their belts, they jump in to the first available job. Because they have to. But what I hope for every one, regardless of their field of interest or expertise, is that you are able to remind yourself of what you love, of what fulfills and replenishes you, and that that can be a part of what you derive from the work that you do. Because at the end of the day, we get one “wild and precious life“, as Mary Oliver so beautifully wrote. And to spend the vast majority of its waking hours doing something that takes and never gives, is no way to live. And two-hour hikes and weekly dinners are certainly no way to care for your spirit and heart.
This week I am flying to Denver for the Association of Oncology Social Work annual conference. I am going to meet and be surrounded by a group of people who have either dedicated their lives to this work or are just starting out. It is an annual reminder that our work can sustain us. It can hold and be a part of “self-care” in a way that schools aren’t really talking about or encouraging their students to seek. I hope for anyone reading this, that you think of what fills your heart, and figure out how to get a little bit of that every day. On the 9-5. Because self-care is all the time. It keeps us going, it makes the giving and doing and changing possible, and everyone needs and deserves it. Imagine if everyone you met loved their work and felt fulfilled by it? Now that would change the world.