The Velvet Fist

In his blog post, Warren referenced the “really interesting conversations” he has had in the past couple of years that have served to stimulate his thinking about topics he will write about in the future. I too have been in conversations recently which have offered opportunity to think again about some topics that keep resurfacing for me.

For almost my entire career, I have been privileged to work as part of human service organizations. It has never failed, when I meet someone new who isn’t part of “our world”, that they offer an interesting perspective on the work. Quite frequently the comments offered assume that we are eternally patient and that the work must be SO rewarding!! Often remarks include things like “I don’t know how you do it….I couldn’t.” I’ve wondered if what’s really being suggested is that we is keep doing what we’re doing so others don’t have to!

From an outsider’s perspective, our work can be perceived to be either “helping” vulnerable people or “fixing” social problems – often considered both difficult and largely distasteful tasks. While social service organizations certainly provide assistance to individuals and families, and respond to social issues affecting the health and well-being of our communities, the perceived functions of helping and fixing contain problematic assumptions about who comes through the doors and the roles of those that engage with them.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has written that “helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” Her model offers a helpful analysis I have regularly pondered in thinking about the challenge human service organizations are facing in representing their value and purpose to others.

If the service and supports human service organizations provide are perceived to be delivered to those who are weak or those who are broken, it is difficult to imagine or believe in the potential and abilities of these individuals or to recognize our common humanity, that they are our brothers and sisters. Individuals we serve instead become burdens on society – marginalized objects of charity – whose welfare is someone else’s responsibility. Their sense of belonging is even more tenuous – their perceived brokenness terrifies and alienates. If instead, we can work to help build recognition that it our sons and daughter and our neighbours who come through our doors, then the work of human service organizations becomes about providing service to sustain the integrity of our communities, to build wholeness and welcome for our neighbours.

For those of us who work inside or in support of human service organizations, it is equally critical that we each examine our individual perceptions of the work and the service. We each bear responsibility for changing the view. Promoting helping suggests a helplessness on the part of the receiver, a relationship defined by inequality. Similarly, promoting any idea that we are fixing others asserts a righteous authority sanctioned by the act of repair. Helping and fixing are what Norman Kunc describes, as the “iron fist in the velvet glove” – acts capable of great wounding while seemingly appearing benign and beneficial. I hope to be in service to others, working to forge a relationship which honours the strengths and capacity each contributes to the outcome of the interaction.

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