practice exchange for psychologically informed environments
Chapter 5 – Making Meaning and the Art of
Common Language Construction
“Despair is suffering without meaning.”
– Dr. Viktor E. Frankl
The Springboard of Potentiality
We are meaning makers! This is an integral part of the human condition that social workers, counselors, and case managers have far too often ignored. Whether it is somewhat hidden or clearly communicated, our language reveals our individual sense of values,meaning and purpose. As outreach workers and Housing First staff, it is important that we both understand the worlds that our clients construct via their words and ideas, and also grasp what they find to be meaningful. Once we have a better understanding of what people value, we can speak directly to that sensibility and thereby form a trusting relationship built on a common language. Then, future choices and actions can be actively considered, so new pathways to healing can be formed. This is the springboard of potentiality!
Dr. Frankl is a holocaust survivor who wrote the seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning (1985). He pioneered an approach to therapy that centers on the human need to interpret and find significance from our life experiences. In essence, Dr. Frankl’s thesis is that the ability to derive meaning from the many challenges that life presents, including traumatic events, is essential toward promoting our mental health and full potential. A sense of purpose is a powerful way to organize our being and define the world in which we live, while motivating us toward future pursuits. Dr. Frankl’s work, which was profoundly impacted by his captivity at a concentration camp, highlights the importance of deriving new interpretations of traumatic events. As Dr. Frankl (1985) states,“Despair is suffering without meaning.” The more we are able to redefine traumatic experiences into something meaningful, the easier it is to gain a greater sense of mental health, balance, and purpose,while preserving our autonomy. As it turns out, many long-term homeless individuals who have experienced trauma and are living in harsh unsheltered environments have thrived by constructing worlds full of meaning.
Old Man Ray’s Narrative Revisited
The following is an excerpt from my book Homeless Narratives & Pretreatment Pathways (Levy, 2010, pp. 7-8), which depicts the world of Old Man Ray (a World War II veteran). In many respects, Old Man Ray was my first field instructor as he demonstrated the interconnection between trauma, homelessness, and making meaning. So let’s turn back the clock to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president and homelessness was on the rise. I was a young social work graduate, and like so many before me, full of ideals and ready to take on the universe.
“During my first days of outreach, I was immediately puzzled by the deceptively simple task of helping an elderly homeless man who lived at New York City’s Port Authority. He was a short, stocky white male of 67 years with a long white beard. His mobility was somewhat hampered, but he could move slowly by using a cane to get around to the shops throughout the building. He spent most of his time sitting on a milk-crate and observing the multitudes of people making their way to work and other activities, while quietly having a quick nip. You could count on him to be there on a daily basis along with the variety of shops, newsstands and commuters. He called himself Old Man Ray and had become a fixture at the Port Authority.
The first time I approached Old Man Ray, he surprised me with his outward sense of satisfaction and connection to his environment. In fact, while I was still transitioning to my role as an outreach worker, Ray had long been adapted to his life at the Port Authority. During our first meeting, he said to me, “I am the night watchman! If you want to know what goes on around here, all you got to do is ask.” He then went on to ask how he could be of service to me. In my mind, he had immediately reversed the tables. My offer to help him did not resonate in his world and I left our meeting feeling a little stuck, yet excited about the challenges of outreach and what appeared to be the enigmatic world of homeless individuals. I was left with an important and at times the central question of outreach: How do you help those who are clearly in need, yet communicate no need for help?”
Whenever I revisit Ray’s story, I am struck by the amazing ability of the human mind to adapt to threatening situations. Here was an isolated elderly man without a home, impoverished, and due to impaired mobility, forced to spend most of his days sitting on a milk-crate. Yet he managed to maintain his internal sense of control.Instead of being overwhelmed with loss due to homelessness, or being extraordinarily fearful of strangers in an unfamiliar setting, he found solace as the night watchman. When I offered assistance, he quickly set me straight. Ray explained that he knew everything there was to know about the Port Authority. He saw himself as akin to an information center and instead of accepting my help, he offered me assistance. In this manner, Old Man Ray made meaning out of homelessness, and thereby adapted to what could have been a harsh and unforgiving reality. He accomplished this by finding a sense of belonging and purpose, rather than being overwhelmed with fear and despair or as Dr. Frankl would say, “Suffering without meaning.”
The initial goals of outreach and engagement were to form an ongoing productive communication between Ray and myself. This was complicated by the fact that we were viewing our interactions through the lens of different developmental stages. The juxtapositions of our ages and perceived roles were quite telling of the challenges that lay directly ahead. After all, I was fresh out of school, brash and armed with my knowledge of resources and clinical techniques. When I first encountered Ray, I saw a highly vulnerable homeless old man who was in dire need of help. However, Ray did not view himself as a victim. He saw himself as a wise elder and a proud World War II veteran. Consequently, he could not see how a youngster, who was wet behind the ears, could possibly provide any type of assistance. For our work to become successful, I would have to adjust. I needed to take an approach that incorporated Keegan’s developmental considerations into my communications with Ray. Instead of acting like a teacher, it was far more productive for me to play the role of student. It was all too easy to forget that Ray was the expert on his world, but he reminded me by demanding respect. Instead of offering answers and alternatives to his homeless situation, I needed to listen to his stories and thereby begin to understand his perspective. Once I changed my stance to that of a young man accepting advice and learning from the stories of a wise elder, our relationship began to flourish. Our developmental interpretations and the roles that we played were now complementary, rather than being in perpetual conflict.
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