Trigger Warning: The following post makes mention of serial sexual assault. Please do what you need to take care of yourself if you choose to read.
What is the hardest part of this job?
An applicant for the new Director of Operations position asked me that this week. We are currently in the middle of interviews, and while we are exhausted by the process, it is important we get the right person.
I told her that was a good question, and it is. I just am not sure I have a good answer for it.
I ended up tell her that the most difficult part of the job, in fact, the most difficult part of doing this work in general, is how reactive it is.
Every morning, I get up, make myself a cup of coffee and get out my old-school Franklin Planner and make a list of my planned activities for the day, ordered by priority, just like they taught me all those years ago in corporate sales school. It is a heck of a list, ordered in order of priority, with the three most important things to do for the day highlighted.
But that list is entirely aspirational, because as soon as I get to the office, Emily comes in and tells me that last night she was raped, and she asks if I can help her talk to the police. Or Steven is having a manic episode, and he needs someone to talk it down with him. Or Shirley has a panic attack, and she needs someone to be with her and reassure her she is safe.
Or someone we have never seen before comes by with food, which makes us very happy, but we have to make sure the food is put away. Or Danny needs his resume printed. Or Shelia wants to know how to enroll in the local community college. Maria asks if we can look up her daughter, who she hasn’t seen in years, on the Internet. Marvin, who isn’t fully mentally competent, comes by to tell me that he is going to a group home – he thinks – but he can’t find the paper that gives him his appointment times.
None of that was on that to-do list.
The inability to plan your work for most of your workweek has to be the hardest part.
But I have thought about it, and then I remembered the cold, snowy days in the winter. The days when we close at five, and it is 4:50pm and our friends are packing their things to leave. You know they have nowhere to stay that night, and it is wet and cold. You tell them all goodnight. You close the door behind them. Then you get in my car, turn on the heater, and drive past them as they trudge in the snow to the bus stop. You head home to your nice warm house. Dinner is prepared and waiting for you.
That might be the hardest part.
Or maybe it’s when you work with Billy for months, helping to make sure he makes his meetings, you help remove obstacles, you celebrate his 30 days, and then his 60 days and then his 90 days of sobriety, and then you have to go visit him in jail because he was arrested when they raided the meth house.
Or it’s seeing Stephanie return to her abuser, because it is getting cold outside now and she doesn’t have anywhere safe to go, and while he may beat the crap out of her, at least she has a warm bed to sleep in there.
Or it is having your illusions stripped away when you have been doing this work for a few months, and you meet an incredibly smart and beautiful woman who is partnered with a man who brings her nothing but trouble. She is obviously frustrated with the relationship. And when you ask why she doesn’t leave, she tells you that the first month she was on the streets, she was raped three times. While this guy is a jerk, he protects her from everyone else, and after all, it’s better to be raped by one guy regularly and predictably than lots of guys randomly. And sometimes, he’s even nice to her.
That might have been the hardest part.
But then you give it a lot of thought and realize that no matter how hard it was for you to hear that, it pales in comparison to her living that. And then you realize that the hardest part isn’t borne by you, but by the lives of the people you have come to love. And that your job isn’t to fix people, but to accompany them on a long hard journey.
That isn’t what I told the applicant that day. But it’s what I wish I had.
Related: The Interruptions Are Our Work