The thing about striving to achieve goals is that when you achieve them, there is a very small window of time when you feel proud and fulfilled, and then anxiety sets in again because now there needs to be another set of more challenging goals to achieve.
Being a social worker in a supportive housing site is a fulfillment of so many of my lifelong goals. For a good moment in time – and for the most part, currently still – I have felt plenty proud and fulfilled. Most weekdays I genuinely enjoy the work that I do and I go home with a simple thought, “I love that I’m a social worker.”
Then, at night, as I will myself to try and lose consciousness for a few hours, a restless sort of state creeps in, reminding me that this window of time is small indeed, and it’s closing fast.
I have aspired a great deal to be where I’m at now. I have been given the responsibility to empower and motivate at least eighteen formerly homeless people living with disabilities and who survived traumas so they don’t end up homeless again and so they achieve their own goals they set for themselves. It’s not a responsibility I take lightly. It’s just that more and more I get this nagging feeling that this is not all that I aspired to be. I’m still a novice who’s barely begun his journey to make his mark in the world.
I think about the context of the supportive housing site I work at. To become eligible as a tenant in the studio units here (if there was a vacancy, and at this moment, there isn’t), the applicant must: 1. have been homeless for at least a year (this fitting into the categorical definition of “chronically homeless”); 2. be diagnosed with a mental illness/disability; and 3. live with a physically disabling medical conditions or have survived domestic violence. To put it bluntly, you don’t get to be a tenant here unless you had a shitty life and live with serious impairments. On the one hand, I’m glad to be of support to people who’s gone through so much and who continue to struggle to make ends meet everyday. When I think more about the context though, I resent this system which makes such people have to prove how much of a struggle their lives are so they can be eligible for subsidized housing and social/medical/recreational services. Two hundred years have gone by and this is definitely a far cry from the settlement houses of Jane Addams’ era when people could benefit from what settlement houses offered simply if they wanted to. In a city where the size of the homeless population has continued to increase from about 20,000 in year 2000 to what is now about 60,000, this context of being a social worker at a site that benefits 120 households is not fully satisfying to me. There are days when it feels like the site can’t even manage the 120.
I don’t think this type of supportive housing is a solution to the much larger social issues of homelessness, of poverty, of disabilities, or of domestic violence. It’s certainly needed, and to say that it’s like a bandaid would not do justice to the benefit to society it provides. Like I said before, I love the good work that I get to do. It is an incredible joy and privilege to be doing this. Still, imagine a thousand more of these sites in the city and there wouldn’t be a drastic change to those larger aforementioned social issues. This is not the solution.
Hence why a lot of nights I’m too restless to fall asleep. I’ve achieved my goals of becoming a social worker in a field to address homelessness and poverty, and now new goals, new aspirations emerge.
I fantasize about my career path going forwards. There’s a lot of possibilities.
Some of those possibilities have recently been fueled by binge-watching West Wing on Netflix and leisurely reading Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. I feel like I should study economics and law. I could become an attorney at places like Urban Justice Center, start out by helping people appeal denials to SSI/SSDI benefits. The idea of practicing law for low-income and disabled tenants also feels like a good aspiration to have, a good starting point to ultimately get into position to affect housing and urban planning policies.
Part of me doesn’t like that possibilty though, out of loyalty to my social work background. Unlike many of my colleagues both my Baccalaureate and Master’s degrees are in social work. I might feel like aspiring to be a lawyer is a betrayal to my commitment to social work. Even without a law degree I can still aspre to do big impactful, political things. An LMSW (+ years and years of experience and accomplishments) is sufficient to be a director and to be a policy analyst/advisor/lead. There are House Representatives and Senators who are LMSWs/LCSWs after all.
There are some global aspirations too, though those ones I feel the least sure about. I recall a conversation I had with a close friend about a month ago. He asked me if I was still thinking about enrolling in Peace Corps or doing something like that in the future. Of course my answer still is yes. Then he reflected that if I were to ever go through with it, I may not come back. “What do you mean?” I had asked. “I wouldn’t come back in a long time or something?” He meant that I may stay there and never come back. He didn’t articulate reasons for that belief but now I wonder about that. Perhaps there is some truth to that. If I go with an aspiration to help people out there, how would I not be able to grow deeper larger aspirations when I’m there? I do have a personality that once I start to dig into something I’m passionate about, I won’t stop digging until the reason for that passion is resolved.
That’s the thing about aspirations I suppose. They don’t end. It’s a growing cycle of ever larger and larger set of aspirations. I don’t understand how it drives human motivation in such a compelling manner, but it seems like this is a mechanism that gets already powerful people to become so corrupted to thirst and do all kinds of bidding for more power and influence. I hope I don’t ever get sucked in like that.
Well, for the time being, I’m not changing jobs any time soon. I predict myself staying as a social worker at this supportive housing site for many more years. I still have a lot to learn here, and people here need me.
I live my life always feeling like I owe the world, like I have to make up for how I’m still allowed to breathe and think. I can only relieve this burden by taking joy in the work that I do.
Last night I browsed idealist.org for volunteer opportunities. I didn’t browse for too long but I think I spotted a few that I think might keep some of my larger aspirations at bay. I tell myself my aspirations should not be about money, and it should not be about self-advancement. The second part is harder to have conviction of, as the human mind tends to put self-advancement at the forefront. For example, I might be interested in volunteering moreso to sleep better at night than any other selfless reason.
Aspirations start with the self. The great hope is that in achieving them, the true beneficiaries are everyone else.