You can’t hide love!
Published 30 January 2017
Love is not a word used synonymously with working on the front line of community services. This work is a tough gig, characterised by seeing and hearing things that the ordinary person wouldn’t see or hear in their everyday life. The stories our visitors tell us could and should make your eyes sting with tears, your heart ache for the childhood they lost or drive a lump into your throat because of the traumatic experiences they have encountered.
For the most part, frontline staff and volunteers find a space where the pain doesn’t transfer – doesn’t penetrate. We talk a lot about appropriate professional boundaries. We are working with vulnerable people and we need to ensure that neither they nor we are compromised in the process of partnering with them. It’s about them – their goals and aspirations and dreams.
We skirt around the issue of love. We are careful that physical reassurance and comfort, if offered to a distressed person is done in a way that is appropriate and could not be misconstrued. We don’t talk about love or about loving our visitors. But walk through the floors of 139 Club and you will find that the one word which captures that “get under your skin” feeling this place gives you, is love.
When a person visits with us, without sleep, clean clothes, money, friends or family or the will to keep trying, it’s not just the practical support that makes them believe they can get through another day. When one of our visitors calls in, stricken with panic and ready to flee from the troubles chasing them – it’s not just the calming demeanour of our staff and volunteers that helps them make a choice about the next right step. We can call it “care” or “empathy”! But it’s love! Accepting, unconditional love for people whether we know them or not!
At Christmas time, on the day of our Christmas lunch, I decided to take a bold step. I wore a sign that said “Free Hugs”. I was completely open to whether people would avail themselves of the opportunity to hug me. I was frightened and uncomfortable – not of people wanting to hug me, but of people not wanting to. I, like every other person in the world, is afraid of rejection. I did it because I thought the best Christmas present I could give to our visitors was the opportunity to feel connected and loved, a feeling many of them seldom experience. I hugged about 100 people that day, many of them more than once.
Our visitors didn’t want air hugs – the polite type where you go through the motions of hugging but your heart isn’t in it. They wanted bear hugs, hugs with meaning, hugs that said “I love you whether I know you or not.” There was nothing inappropriate about it, nothing crossing over a professional boundary. It was done in the spirit of fun, of Christmas and because I wanted to show that it’s ok to love.
Over the course of the next year people will come and go. Every time we journey with someone and see them taking steps forwards we will believe in them, feel excited, hopeful and do whatever we can to help them make their dreams a reality. There will be plenty of occasions where we see them come back to us, their efforts dashed, their purpose failing, their lives lapsing back into homelessness, addiction and offending behaviour. Sometimes that is hard for us to accept. There will be days when we find it hard to look at someone who had the world at their feet and chose to walk a different path. But it will make no difference to what we do in the end, because that is what love is all about.
We can pretend that underneath our professional personas and our appropriate boundaries and our policy ridden and carefully formulated practice frameworks that it’s all about getting the day’s work done. But really, the reason we are all here, in its simplest form, is love!