What do you do to remain professional in your dealings with someone that you really don’t want to spend any time with? How do you accurately decide whether a decision you make that was not in favor of someone, not something they wanted to hear, was in fact a decision you’d have made with anyone, no matter who the person might be? What would you do if you truly had to be in the presence of someone about whom you couldn’t identify a single, endearing quality? And how would you feel when, after years of experience with someone like that, you saw a news story about how they had been killed?
I think that any line of work having to do with direct service to others presents challenges about the meaning and definition of professionalism, struggles to separate the “personal” from the “objective.” I’ve had a few such careers, including three different teaching positions, a summer counseling job, several years working inside a correctional facility and now almost 20 years at an adult homeless shelter. I know from experience that if someone is unable to relate to a client, a student, an inmate or a homeless guest in a way that at least includes feelings and expressions that closely resemble a personal relationship, their service to such people will be shallow and devoid of color and substance. And it’s obvious that making certain relationships too personal only leads to trouble and damage and is usually a misuse of personal power.
The longer the time a professional arrangement is in place, the greater is the potential challenge to this separation of personal and professional. The shared experience of an e.r. doc and the victim of an auto accident is clearly intense and one in which the normal boundaries around personal privacy are suspended—but the time shared is brief, and there is little if any opportunity for any exchange. In contrast, a high school teacher in a small town may have two or more years’ worth of regular contact and exchanges with his or her students, but there is predictability in the deal and a specific set of content areas in which things operate (English, math, wood working shop—do they still have this?). But consider a homeless shelter, and a whole lot of people over time who have been damaged at birth and/or later, who lack both the desire and capacity to become “productive,” and for whom the Shelter’s Day Program is a safe place to hang out.
Working with this country’s homeless population would be nothing but easy and rewarding if it were a simple matter of victims needing to be connected with available solutions. But it’s not that simple. “Edward” (“EJ”) was listened to, tolerated, advised, shown alternatives, encouraged, cajoled, referred to various supports, sternly talked at, and eventually shown the door. And this happened at all the area shelters, until his only option was to stay outside. EJ was not someone you would enjoy meeting on a sidewalk and getting to know a little. EJ was on the permanent sex offender registry. EJ was a human being, and, as far as I could tell, he was not inherently evil. He made the choices he made, was deemed competent to do so, and managed to get himself evicted from just about every program that tried to help. Not all, but most.
EJ crossed a dark street in front of a car driven by someone in their 60’s (like me, and I wonder about the driver’s night vision) and got himself killed. I don’t mean he was clearly suicidal, but the manner of his death mirrored the pattern of self-destructive behaviors we had witnessed. Put it this way: EJ was not killed by a drunk driver who drove his car off the road, jumping a curb and killing him on the sidewalk.
So I’m trying to decide what to make of this. Some who knew EJ (and many who did not) would shrug their shoulders and in one form or another suggest the thing to do was to move on. Others are gearing up to create a remembrance or a celebration of his life. Some providers will feel guilty for somehow not having done enough to prevent what happened. Many of us will not be successful in our efforts to separate our need for perspective, for a conclusion that we are okay with, from his life and death.
What will the deaths of any of us really mean? Some will be truly celebrated, the living pointing to the great lives the deceased lived, and the meaning of that life. EJ’s life will be quickly forgotten for the most part—I am certain of that. I think the best thing we might do is acknowledge the death and try to use what happened, the pattern while he was living as well as the end, to somehow improve the effectiveness of our efforts. Maybe commitment laws continually need reviewing; maybe there are little moments that we could do our work with more skill. But I believe the EJ’s of our world are going to continue to pose difficult challenges for all of us, and they will continue to die young.