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Valentine's Day

Natalia J. Garland

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A co-worker once talked to me about his job dissatisfaction. He was having doubts that he had chosen the right area of specialization. He worried that he would not be able to adjust to the demands of working with a difficult mental health population. He asked me how I had coped with my work as long as I had. My spontaneous answer was that I was doing exactly the kind of work that I wanted to do, and that I had begun my social work career with a determination to make a difference in this world.

His next remark surprised me. He said that it must be a great feeling to actually love your patients. He said that loving them is really what it takes to keep working. When I reflected on this, I realized that there are some people who become therapists for reasons less than love, and that some people are capable of loving only certain types. We all probably have a mixture of healthy and unhealthy reasons for doing what we do, but let us hope the healthy are the stronger factors.

Since our conversation took place over Valentine's Day, I thought it fitting to ponder on a definition of love that would apply to the nature of the helping professions.

Most people are probably familiar with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy;

Grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

That prayer has always disturbed me. It is both lofty and humble, difficult and yet simple, and oh so open to misinterpretation. It is a prayer that could guide the alcoholic to sanity and drive the co-dependent to dejection. The juxtaposition of terms makes it an intellectual puzzle.

Why is it better to love than to be loved? Perhaps the key to the prayer lies in the concept, "that I may not so much seek to be loved, as to love." There is nothing wrong with seeking to be loved. Personally, I think reciprocal love is the ideal. But St. Francis had some keen psychological insight into the human dynamics of love. Most of us desire love, acceptance, inclusion, nurture, respect, comforting, and so on. Some of us have been provided these qualities since childhood, and some of us have searched for and found such qualities on life's journey.

As professional helpers we are, or should be, functional people. It is our level of functioning that enables us to console, understand, and to give of ourselves. This is why it is better to love than to be loved, because doing so means that you have been loved and you are functioning at an advanced level psychologically and spiritually. It is not only about altruism or sacrifice. It is about logic. Love is power.

Our patients may or may not have been loved. They may or may not fully appreciate the help we give them. If we are looking for love from them, if we need to be needed, then we might be facing a quick career burnout. The work we do has to be felt as intrinsically satisfying because the personal rewards, on this earth, are few.

If we were always giving love and expecting an equal return from people who simply are not capable, the result could be a state of massive depression. I really do not think St. Francis is suggesting a lifestyle of masochism or co-dependency. He is probably referring to a certain abnegation of pathological narcissisim. He is cutting through the illusions, fantasies and wishfulness of those who desire to step onto love's territory.

The Prayer of Saint Francis is, after all, a prayer. There are a lot of prayers and this one might not be for everyone. This prayer might not be anecdotal for victims or for the oppressed. If there is an emotional world of the haves and the have-nots, this seems to be a prayer for the haves.

By the way, have a Happy Valentine's Day. (Written 02/17/03 - Revised 12/01/03: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2003 Natalia J. Garland