You know, I always say I’m not a conference person, which might surprise some people. But maybe this is less true than I think it is. Each year that I have gone to the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW) annual conference, I walk away with something that I simply could not have gotten anywhere else.
Two years ago in Seattle, I shared an idea with an audience for the first time and was rewarded with wonderful, fruitful, and validating feedback from a room full of my peers and colleagues. Last year in Tampa, on the last day, someone who had heard my talk on forgiveness innocently said, “You should write a blog. I would love to read what you write throughout the year.” I thanked her, of course, and didn’t think anything more of it. But it planted the seed that launched me into everything I never thought I’d know about hosting, creating, and writing a blog. That passing comment became Witnessing This Life, where we meet each other now. So I owe the conferences a lot, including good connections and some new friendships.
But this year, the one thing that really stuck with me, particularly following the feedback to my paper on hope, was how much we care about this work. Surrounded by fellow oncology social workers, I was deeply impressed by how much we care for the patients we work with and for, and how much it impacts us when we struggle against all the stuff we can’t control–doctors and nurses and medicine and family members and at the center of all of it is this terrible, terrible disease.
The thing is that we often ask, if not demand of ourselves, how can we do this better? How can we do more? How can we work the miracles we wish we could work for the benefit of our patients? But this got me to thinking that these cannot and perhaps should not be the questions we ask ourselves. I think our questions have to be a little bigger. To ask instead for self-awareness, spiritual connectedness…creativity. Maybe we shouldn’t ask anything more of ourselves than to be and grow. To do our best, to feel proud of our efforts, and to support everyone on our team to do their best, too.
We work within a system that so often wants answers to things that are unanswerable. We are often tossed into rooms or are given referrals when there is nothing to actually DO. I always think of the impossible referrals we get and how we are expected, at 5pm on a Friday, to make it all right and neat and done. In cancer, not only do we deal with difficult discharges, incredibly complex disease, family dynamics…we also sit, as humans, heart to heart with patients who we come to love and honor and appreciate…but our day isn’t done until we can DO something to help them.
Almost without exception, we found social work because we believed we could make change… and we can. We have a capacity to change ourselves and to change the lives of others. It is, in many cases, what has drawn us to this field. The danger is in thinking that we have to change the world. For every patient. Today. The fact is that it takes courage to believe that we can make change. It also takes insight, and kindness and self-compassion to realize that we can’t do it all, all the time. We are constantly seeking some balance within a constantly shifting landscape.
This is us giving ourselves permission to do our best, to recognize that changes are sometimes incremental, sometimes incubating seeds of potential…sometimes bolts of lightning where everything aligns. But I am asking you to see what is possible, to give yourself permission to love what you do and the people you do it with, and to know that you cannot possibly do it all.
I hope that this is a friendly reminder that we cannot be or DO everything all the time. That when we show up and do our best, our work and our hearts speak for themselves. We are enough. I am writing today to open the door, to inspire curiosity, and to plant the seeds of possibility in each person reading this, but particularly for my oncology social working friends and colleagues, to see where it takes you with your patients and with yourself. To highlight that hope and forgiveness look like different things along the disease trajectory with our own patients, and in our own lives. The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson uses the phrase “composing a life”. And it is language that resonates deeply with me. We are all in a position to compose, to build and to change, to use creativity and intention to change lives and make meaning, and to forgive ourselves each day that we do not realize our ideals, and yet still show up each day to try again.