Missing the boat
Sixties music legend Bob Dylan wrote these simple words in a song:
Dylan was revered by a generation or two (or three!) for being able to put profound concepts into everyday words that we all understand. Here he was listing the qualities he needed in a partner. But of course it is the wider resonance of his words that have made him truly great. He may be surprised to think that these words have relevance to those of us running child and youth care programs here on the Southern tip of Africa!
Young people who come into our programs come into them almost by definition because of their internal pain – or at times the blunted absence of it. They may be referred to our programs because they have nowhere to stay, have been hurt by someone close to them, have tried to transcend reality with the assistance of substances, have stolen, have hurt someone else – but no matter the external reasons for referral, most young people come to our programs with internal pain in overwhelming quantity. The question we must ask ourselves is do we set up our programs to work with that pain, or do we stay in the relative safety of the external, referring circumstances in our programs? It seems that many programs focus their energies on (in Dylan’s terms), the cooking and sewing part of the provision for young people. We teach skills – life skills, job skills, homemaking skills, personal hygiene skills. We go whole hog on the mastery thing – as well we should. But do we understand the pain of our young people?
Internal, emotional, psychic pain – call it what you will – is a scary thing. As it is said time and again, you can only take someone as far as you yourself have gone, and many of us do not know our own pain very well. We have not done the inner work that helps us to figure out our own reactions; or we have lived narrow lives where we make the vastness of the world more manageable by setting rigid rules for our own and others’ behaviour. Our capacity to feel for others, to empathize, to `be with’ others as they feel their pain is handicapped by our fear and limitations. And all too often (especially those of us in leadership) build our programs in the realm of that which we understand and personally feel comfortable with, rather than in the realm of that which the children really need. And let us not kid ourselves. Our programs can look good from the outside if we teach competence, build capacity and do all those ‘external’ things that are necessary to make children’s lives work for them. Indeed they can often look a lot better than those programs where things are a bit more emotionally unbundled and untidy. But is it not a fact of life that we as human beings heal through being understood by others? When someone is able to give us the sense that they do indeed have an inking of our experience, when our full pain-filled selves can find acceptance, when we are smiled at for who we truly are, when we are considered special no matter what we do – surely then we have a chance of moving beyond our troublesome pain-based behaviour?
Of course it is not as simple as all this. But surely, surely, surely our programs for children afflicted with great emotional pain must be predicated on an understanding not only of children’s circumstances, and what they need to learn, but on their full, whole, agonized beings. Our residential programs must especially seek in every policy, procedure, rule and roster to reflect an effort to understand the pain of children and the pain-based behaviour that may result from this. Otherwise surely we are missing the boat.