I have at times found myself stretched thin; a brittle husk of stress – somehow hollow and too full at the same time. I have felt this with my work as a special education teacher, I have felt this as a parent, and I have felt this as an activist and an advocate.
I feel it lately: the heavy passive cloak of almost immoveable floundering. I have felt wrapped in the sticky temptation to give up…
The best advise I’ve had is from my dad. We spoke of this almost a year ago… well… more like he spoke and I tried to capture his words… (and, admittedly, I cried a bit too). I think of this conversation regularly – at intervals – like breathing. I think of this conversation at times like this. It helps me step away from heaviness. It keeps me stepping ahead… and moving forward.
Upon my questioning my competency and feeling overwhelmed…
“Leah… the needs of the system will always be more than you can handle – but you need to know that you are making a difference. It is like the moth to the flame: you are so drawn to helping others and to making a difference that you risk burning your wings. The flame is a reality – and one that you cannot change – but you need to be aware of your limitations – for without your wings you can no longer fly.
It is often useful to look deeply within to examine our professional goals and drives and to have high expectations – but we can’t set the expectations such that they are the sword upon which we must fall.
There is an ennui: a belief structure… a value system… a life force that we seek to have, but that is somehow based on a culmination of ethic and do-good-ism that I think continues to drive us to meet social expectations [or our own] that are unattainable. I think it leaves us with an emptiness – it leaves me with an emptiness that sometimes feels negative – but in my darkest moments – has just left me feeling wanting… and unable to meet the expectations or needs being placed upon me.
We can be driven to that point where the search for professional satisfaction and excellence is incredibly elusive. My advice to you is it is important to be happy with an approximation of success and an approximation of excellence.
We live in a society where poverty, stress, intolerance and misunderstanding are endemic, and the expectations placed upon many professionals are impossible to meet.
We begin to believe that we as individuals can take on a job that will solve the problems… but sometimes the problems are being created at a rate that is faster than we can solve them even at our best.
Our drive for professional excellence and personal achievement at our profession can create a set of traps which we can’t avoid. The number of people who are needing our assistance continue to grow, and at the same time, the variation in their needs changes faster than we can keep up with them due to the social conditions, or greater systems issues.
Looking after the team [I am the coordinator of the special ed department at my school] – helps the students and their families. If the team is functioning well this serves families better. Supporting the teachers is part of your job. Supporting families is your job. Supporting your students is your job… and working within the system to make it better – more effective, is your job as well.
It is important to be a rationalist so that not to get caught up in the over-emotionalization of the problems created in our culture and society. If you understand the logic of cause and effect related to basic functioning of capitalism you will also understand that there will, of necessity [or an intrinsic design flaw], be victims of that society and culture. The variable that exists is the willingness of society to render assistance to those of need… or not, and this affects everything from the social welfare system, the mental health system, right through to the education system. [Here my dad chuckles ironically] The best we can do is patch it up. It is frightening…
Leverage your energy – your influence – your passion – to improve the system where you can. I am proud of you!
Now you should say: ‘I am so lucky to have such a fucking smart father!’ ”
[He says I can type “the end” and edit at will.]
…and I am left feeling understood, lighter, and somehow cleansed!
I carry a simplified version of this with me in my head:
My dad tells me that the needs of the system will always and with certainty outweigh my capacity to meet the needs of the system, and that within that structure I have three choices:
Give up – and stop caring – [and ultimately be of no use to anyone]
Burn myself out trying to do it all [and ultimately be of no use to anyone]
Work toward an approximation of perfection within an imperfect system – and be able to say… ‘that is what I did today and I tried my best…’ and slowly… step by step… be a part of what makes things better…
When I think about limits and self-awareness in terms of self-advocacy for H, and for the students with whom I work, and for my friends who are autistic adults, I can’t help but notice that the skills they need are the same ones for all of us. All of us need to develop understanding about when we have reached capacity, where to set our limits, and when to employ good enough thinking within an ever hopeful framework of change.
It is not easy…
It is far from perfect…
But I’m sharing all of the positive and approximating perfection thoughts I have…
30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.
©Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism (2012)