Long ago I watched a movie called, “Hear My Song,” about a young Irish night club owner attempting to salvage his business by promising the appearance of a famous, long retired, and legally suspect, Irish tenor, Joseph Locke. Night club owner, Micky O’Neill confronts numerous obstacles to bring Jo Locke back to Ireland and simultaneously experiences his own personal growth. When trying to enlist the help of the older generation, he discovers power in the line, “I was born in peacetime. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen. I don’t know what you know.” Humorously, this line converts unwilling curmudgeons into near instant allies with its promise of understanding. While this starts out as a blatant attempt to manipulate, through his journey, Micky O’Neill is converted into someone who can earnestly empathize with others. He stops being a usurious but loveable huckster and transforms into an authentic human being capable of empathy and love.
I thought of “Hear My Song” this week as the news headlines screamed of racialized hatred and violence worldwide. I read these stories with a social worker’s eye and constantly ask, what can we do? How can we change the dynamics and conditions that lead to this? How can we stop this kind of hatred and violence? How do we hear the song of other human beings and realize that our bodies, our voices, our age, our geographic locations, our religions, our dress, our sexual orientations—are not who we are—but are trappings of our human experience. How can we move past these trappings to recognize and honor in each other the divine spark we all carry? How can we connect to and live through that sense of oneness?
In partial answer to my questions I read a story in the NY Times about a restorative justice program in Topeka Kansas entitled, “After the Pain, a Chance to Meet and Forgive.” The article detailed a meeting between the parents of a young man tragically killed by a drunk driver and the young man who killed him. Holly Chavez, the program coordinator says, “Everyone has a thing they want to know.” The victim’s parents wanted to tell the man who was driving so drunk that he has no memory of the event, who their son was. But they also wanted to know who he, the driver, was and what had happened that night. Mrs. Freeman, the dead man’s mother said, “This is a person we don’t even know. How can we judge him?’” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘If he was my son, I hope someone gives him a hug.’”
The meeting was transformative. The young man convicted of drunk driving had been so full of self-loathing and denial that he could barely look at what happened that night. But at the meeting, as Mrs. Freeman, reports, “He said for the first time in his life that he had to deal with his emotions and not lean on alcohol or rage. I thought: “Good. That’s a start in the right direction.” That was the reassurance I needed. Not just the apology.”
Zachery’s conclusion: “At the end, she actually asked me if she could give me a hug. That’s kind of what changed my life. If a mom can do that with what I’ve done — and give me a hug. That’s huge.” While Zachery is not sure he will ever forgive himself, he has, upon release maintained his sobriety, gotten a job and gotten engaged. He also plans to meet with the Freeman’s again.
Ultimately social work is a profession devoted to facilitating moments of transformation like these; devoted to converting lifetimes of overwhelming pain—into single moments of healing. Social work education done well has less to do with teaching a repertoire of skills, than it has to do with our ability to support, nurture and create these moments with and for our students. It is about teaching students to recognize and create these moments for others. This type of education and type of work is no small feat. Converting moments is the work of converting embodied universes, of altering the course of history, of changing the future by the healing the past. And while it is complex and thoughtful work, there is a simple place to start.
This week as the news reports the ravages of hate, I ask that you join social work in its endeavor at conversion and that we each begin – at least some of our sentences with the phrase, “I haven’t seen what you’ve seen. I don’t know what you know.”