My daughter recently shared with me a journal she wrote as part of her internship at a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. In the process, Jessye discovered Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," and found there a metaphor for understanding her own relationship to the work:
I imagine Sisyphus watching his boulder roll down once again, to the bottom of the hill, watch him wipe his sweat as I wave goodbye to women who return to abusers when their PFAs expire, when their custody order comes in and reads "joint." Women who cannot get housing because landlords do not want eight children on their property, because SSI is not enough for an apartment in a safe neighborhood. . . . Women whose intakes report death threats by kitchen knives as their children knelt behind them in prayer. . . .Young case managers and older janitors, exhausted by the needs of clients, humbled and angry by their inability to do everything.
I imagine walking back down the trail of his boulder (for "the rock is his thing"), contemplating the heavy tracks of his calloused feet in the dirt, the noise he makes as he positions himself behind his rock, inhales, then exhales and pushes. And like Camus, I must, I must, imagine Sisyphus happy. I know that something pulls me into this world, this world where I genuinely want to live, this world that makes me happy.
I'm, frankly, inspired by my daughter. I regret that Jessye will probably not have the experience I've had—the spaciousness, the creativity, the diversity—in the field of community mental health. I worry that the danger of burning out looms much larger today, and that the ability to make a decent living is much harder. I feel there's a real danger that community mental health could become increasingly marginal, as shrinking economic resources continue to savage the safety net of the poor. Would I prefer that Jessye become a software developer? Fluent in Chinese?
Not really. After all these years, I've come to think that those of us in community mental health don't so much choose the work—it chooses us. Perhaps this is what distinguishes a calling from a job. I do know that, however impractical our career choice, however frustrating the work, and however unlikely it is that we'll achieve the kind of material success our society venerates, we feel truly alive and engaged only when we're in the thick of this impossible profession. This is a good thing, because more than ever, the community mental health field needs people with vision, energy, and a gut-level love for this work.
Jessye, I wish you well.
David Dan, L.C.S.W., has consulted and served as clinical director to a number of agencies in Philadelphia. He also consults to the City's Department of Human Services and maintains a small private practice. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.