In the last few years, there have been days, weeks, months even, when I have felt more uncertainty and gloom than ever before in my adult life. Whatever personal issues were within and in front of me, they felt toxified by the social and political disorder of our time. Perhaps your heart and mind have had to endure some intense pressures and tensions too. Thankfully for me, it hasn’t been all difficult and has also inspired deeper reflection. And I am reminded that, while it is inherent in the human condition, life is larger than suffering. As one of my friends who has a love-hate relationship with the game of golf, says, “Sometimes, the ball does drop into the hole!”
But with its multitudes of contradictions, life is perplexing. The recent and persistent upsurge of clashing political hostilities in the United States and throughout the world, has only made it even more so. While there are many trends and measures pointing to significant improvements in our world, I do not see them as guarantees for the future. In addition, there is a glaring devolution of intelligent leadership in the United States, combined with entangled, corrupt, and self-interested parties on all sides. And it is all too clear they/we are entirely capable of being short-sighted and self-destructive. Perhaps, like me, you are tired of it, feeling frightened, and trying to find a way to stay hopeful.
My purpose in this paper is to flesh out some thoughts I have been developing about utilizing a unique perspective from social work to clarify and stabilize our thinking in the midst of today’s complex world.
I. Social Work’s Person-in-Environment Perspective
After a while of feeling stymied and frustrated—stuck even—I stumbled back to what is the most obvious for me—social work’s person-in-environment perspective—in order to regain some philosophical steadiness.
For me, this perspective is lucid and clear and has stood the test of time; I highly recommend that you consider including it in your philosophical worldview. The concept is simple: the person is profoundly embedded in his/her social environment. In fact, it is impossible to separate the individual from the situation s/he is in. Furthermore, both parts of the system are in dynamic relationship to each other: the individual influences the environment and the environment influences the individual. Recent studies in general systems theory and ecology support, inform, and extend the person-in-environment perspective even beyond the sociopolitical sphere into micro and macro dimensions we are only just beginning to understand.
Social work grew out of a concern for individual transformation and the need to improve the social structures and system(s) within which the individual lives. Therefore, social workers are committed to strengthening the person through a series of empathically chosen pragmatic and caring interventions aimed at achieving personal goals and advocating for broader policy changes that promote social justice on all levels. Additionally, the person-in-environment perspective is grounded in a value statement that recognizes both the individual and the system as equal partners in forging positive change.
To put it more poetically, the perspective is a beacon in the storms that swirl around our own individual lives as well as our current enveloping international and domestic socio-political crises. I believe it provides a coherent model that helps illuminate many of the underlying structural issues against which individuals, family’s, and community’s are struggling.
So, let’s turn to the person-in-environment perspective more specifically and explore in what ways it can help us now, as we face riddling problems in so many areas of life, starting with the person component.
Is it possible to be walking around with equal parts hope and doubt in one’s mind and heart? I think it is.
Perhaps as you struggle to “keep on trucking”—on a deeper level of awareness—you are asking these types of questions:
“I’m so tired and frustrated, how can I keep going?”
“Why does so little in my life feel rewarding or gratifying?”
“Where can I find safety, refuge, lightness, connection?”
“What should I be doing differently?”
“What and whom can I count on?”
Humans are a complex of contradictions; we have multiple feelings, motives, thoughts, perceptions all happening at once.
Many of us have been feeling weary and powerless, restless and anxious. Frustrated and angry too. But we may also be scared and retreating to the understandable position of self-preservation, which in itself is instinctive. Though seemingly protective, an entrenchment in the behavior dictated by this instinct can lead to myopic isolation, and isolation can kill individual and community spirit. This condition then opens the door to autocratic leaders who understand all too well just how destructive isolation is and so make it their business to isolate us from one another.
Individuals must connect with their deepest values and attempt to bring them forward in life as much as possible. In fact, we have considerable power in choosing a cause; a purpose, to help us decide what we are willing to fight for and what is worth the endurance that will be required by our struggle. But this requires clearing away the fog of our denial and the willingness to uncover, own, process, and release darker emotions. This work of individuation is no picnic, and not quick, but the treasures to be attained are precious and substantial. Among these treasures are personal authenticity and social interdependence.
We could pretend, deny, resist the arduous work of individuation, but the cost is too high. We have to keep our eyes open, admit how lost we feel, and do an intense search for proper guidance on the path of becoming a person who takes righteous actions. We should do good because that’s what we decide to do.
During these complicated times, I believe we are all being called to overcome increasing feelings of helplessness and futility. We can commit ourselves to this work. We should not and cannot reside in the isolation of the self-preservational behavior if we hope to thrive as individuals and to thrive as a vital community. That is, we should begin to interpret the message of “this is how you need to behave to insure your safety, don’t risk anything else,” as a proverbial millstone around our collective neck. It is meant to keep us afraid, small, and impotent. To jettison this millstone, individuals should be smart about it, get the proper support, and aim at cutting the rope.
When basic systemic structures are missing, manipulated or exploited in order to benefit those who seek autocratic or oligarchic power, the result is that those outside that small enclave are deprived of the opportunity to fulfill the promise of their inborn capacities. When we lose the political will to help create needed policies and social structures that provide basic safety and opportunity for self-preservation and self-actualization, families fragment and life becomes unsustainable in expanding sections of our society.
Tragically, this type of anemic political will has been and continues to be an insidious, corrosive current in our contemporary political landscape.
Moreover, people who are continuously manipulated, then exploited and oppressed, tend to be besieged by feelings of helplessness and futility. Regrettably, human history is scarred by endless examples of futility converting to violent actions taken largely to compensate for such feelings of powerlessness. Rage and fury supplant depletion and puniness, rendering the individual temporarily more “in control and powerful,” or, at least feeling less subordinate. Naturally, civilization should be and is justifiably appalled by such violent acts, but as a thought experiment, take a moment to consider, what would likely happen to you—or our elitist political leaders—if conditions of deprivation, discrimination and poverty were the unchanging and oppressive environment in which you/they were reared and/or stuck in. Anyone with even a shred of honesty would have to conclude that a person subjected to an environment lacking in basic supportive structure for living a good life, will at some point suffer from fatigue and excessive frustration.
In closing, I believe all of us—at varying levels and in varying ways—are struggling to overcome feelings of helplessness and futility. This is especially so in our current political climate. However, finding our way to a basic perspective—one that places essential value on the interaction between the person and environment—will help us get on a more sustainable track. But we should be cautious not to focus on one aspect of the perspective to the neglect of the other. Indeed, the tendency to become one-sided is very strong in our psyche. Keeping with the perspective, it’s possible to argue in general terms, those who identify as politically right tend to place too much emphasis on the person, whereas those on the left tend to place too much emphasis on the environment. Rather than thinking in black and white terms or seeing the perspective diametrically, we should place value on the interaction between the two components; that is, a dialectical model would emphasize the dynamic relationship between the person-in-environment. Individuals are more likely to transform in positive directions when the situation in which they live is characterized by social equality, and justice. And an environment that is sustained by policies of fairness and provision of basic needs as a foundation is more likely to be marked by personal transformation, social justice, and peace.
by David Fireman, LCSW