Leading with Vulnerability (and Getting Hit over the Head with an Umbrella)

So there I was, getting beaten over the head with an umbrella by a client in the middle of the parking lot (I’m a social worker, working with men and women experiencing homelessness).  As the umbrella came down, my mind raced, thinking of the possible ways I could best handle this situation (clinically speaking of course). There were just too many therapeutic approaches to consider. So what did I do?

I ran.

I ran behind a car and suddenly found myself in a game of cat and mouse. “Way to go, Maureen,” I thought to myself, and I began to laugh. Way to handle this professionally. Meanwhile, the man with the umbrella was coming at me.

As you can guess by the fact that I am writing this now, I managed to escape (though not gracefully) with just a few minor bruises and some lessons learned:

1. The agency where I work could stand to improve their safety protocol.

2. Thinking about therapeutic approaches when you’re about to get smacked by an umbrella is not a good idea.

3. I can outrun an intoxicated sixty-year-old man. (Silver lining, maybe?)

Leaving the parking lot that day, I was feeling relatively fine physically, but I knew I would be facing the emotional scar for days to come. I had no issues with the man that hit me. In fact, I wouldn’t mind working with him in the future. Usually an outburst like that is a cry for help. Maybe he needs some AA, a few psychotropic drugs, a strong therapeutic alliance, and really, some hope…and Jesus.

The emotional scar that I incurred that day is best described as heartbreak. And who was to blame for this heartbreak? Humanity. Why was I left alone? Why did no one come and help me? There were about 15 witnesses – most of them trained clinicians –and not one of them did anything to help me. I felt a new kind of anger that day that blinded me for days. All that I could see was the ugliness in humanity. So I did what all angry people should do.

I called my godfather, the man I knew who could straighten things out. You see, my godfather has been in the same line of business (CBS) for over 30 years, and I was confident he would have sound advice. And what pearls of wisdom did he give me? “By and by, people are selfish. Don’t expect too much out of people; they’ll just disappoint you.” Followed with a bit of sarcasm: “Hey, why don’t you come out here to Colorado and chill for a bit – we’ve got plenty of pot!” Ha! Never have I been so tempted.

My uncle also told me this: “But don’t be like me. Your aunt always tells me to give people a chance – not to write people off…they might surprise you. And you know, she’s really what has got me through this life. So don’t be like me. You are too full of hope.”

I AM too full of hope.

In recent days, back at work, I’ve seen the man who once carried an umbrella, and he’s looking better– not great, but I’m hopeful. I’ve also been working with an individual who has been homeless for 35 years, and he just moved into his own apartment on Tuesday! “But I can’t call it home yet,” he tells me, “I still need to get a book.”

Walking back from work one day, a familiar voice came on my Pandora station – John Mayer – and he sang to me, “Just remember on the way home / You were never meant to feel alone / It takes a little while / but you’ll be fine / Another good time coming down the line.”

And sure enough, good times have returned and things are looking up, thanks to the people around me (and God’s grace). To humanity. And the best gosh-darn support system a girl could have. There’s just nothing like a phone call with my godfather, or with my parents and sister, or a long letter from my aunt, or a snapchat from my pal in El Salvador. The encouragement, wisdom, and hope I’ve received from my friends are all just unbeatable.

So come at me, umbrellas!

But first, take a look at this passage from Joshua DuBois, one of President Obama’s spiritual advisers:

We all have to be careful to guard our emotions and put the right boundaries around our lives. But sometimes, we have to let our hearts break too. And share that heartbreak with others. It engenders loyalty and understanding like few other things can.

Christ knew this as well. In the Garden, in a moment of startling vulnerability, Jesus took Peter, James, and John aside from the other disciples and confided in them. He said in a voice that must have been filled with hurt, with desperation, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’

Our Savior led with vulnerability. He led by sharing his heartbreak. It’s a risky practice, but one with great reward.

To close with a song, this one by Will Hoge has a title that says it all: “(Keep on Dreaming) Even if it Breaks Your Heart.”

Maureen Burke is an MSW candidate at The Catholic University of America and a Graduate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.