I’ve been a bit down about work lately and I don’t fully feel like I’m making the difference in the world that I want to make.
I’m in Social Security. I advocate for people seeking benefits from the government. The work is depressing because the situation is depressing. Most of my clients wait at least two years for a hearing. A lot of them look “lazy” and/or “just looking for a handout” from someone else’s perspective. Some of them really are scammers, trying to pull one over on the government, sometimes trying to pull one over on me; I do my best not to represent those people, but sometimes I’m deceived myself. Anyway, most of my clients are people with some physical or mental health condition that simply gets in the way of them being able to hold down a full-time job, and in a society without enough jobs to go around anyway, the roll of the disabled is growing larger.
I get pretty down about our society and my role in it. We as a society (America) have been doing a pretty bad job of taking care of those in need; really, the chronically poor, whether they’re disabled or just uneducated and under/unemployed. We make people jump through all sorts of hoops, and we don’t offer the help until you’re really desperate for it. But if we (as attorneys and activists) are honest with ourselves, the people themselves aren’t always all that inspiring either.
The reality is that I’m working to fight poverty one person at a time, and I’m only focused on a very narrow slice of the poor population; and the difference that I make to each of them is still fairly small because these benefits aren’t so substantial. I even sort of feel bad about making a living at this because my pay comes out of the checks of the poor people I’m trying to help, as though they’d be slightly better off if I didn’t have to charge them for my services. (Of course there’s the back and forth on that issue, if I didn’t get paid I couldn’t do the work and then they’d be much worse off.)
But mostly I’m frustrated because it feels like bailing water out of the Titanic with a bucket.
I occasionally remind myself of the parable of the starfish. It’s a simple story. Sometimes a wave can deposit starfish (and other sea creatures) on the sand, and if they dry out before the tide comes in over them, they die. So a little boy is walking along the beach full of starfish, millions of them, picking them up one at a time and throwing them into the ocean. He sees an old man, who questions what he’s doing. “You’ll never make a difference – there are too many for you to ever get through.” The boy picks up another starfish and tosses it into the ocean. “I made a difference to that one.”
Sometimes I would rather be a politician or run a massive nonprofit agency making structural changes to fight institutional poverty in this country. In the starfish metaphor, I wish I could be a wave on the ocean… or at least have a bulldozer. Instead, I’m a small time attorney helping one person at a time get benefits. It’s slow, agonizing, heartbreaking work. I lose a lot and I watch my clients suffer, and a lot of them aren’t very pleasant to be around. But I periodically look over the list of cases I’ve handled. I’m fortunate to have lost count, somewhere in the hundreds. I know there are plenty of much more experienced attorneys whose lists are in the thousands, but I’ve helped hundreds of people attain a marginally better existence.
I’m tempted to go back through the list and pull out a phone number or two, check up on people to maybe feel some hope. But I’m also worried what will happen if I check up on someone and find out that life isn’t going well- I probably wouldn’t have anything more to offer them.
So I have to plod on. One hour at a time, one case at a time, one life at a time.