It did not catch my attention until I heard it over and over again. Those with “more experience” like to use it to describe me; they always lace the word with a knowing smile.
A social worker does it during a clinical training when she leans in to tell me about what it’s really like in the trenches. One person calls me it with a tone of disapproval. Another woman nods smugly when she describes it. It’s not pretty the word, the way they say it, like they are wiser than I am: “Idealist.” You’ll lose your hope, everyone tries to say, as if their hardened faces know the truth and I could learn from the innocence they lost.
So, I nod for they are my superiors—I am here to learn. Only, I want to scream-cry my frustration at their cynicism. I want to say, “You lost your innocence doing this work?” Losing your innocence should be the reason everyone does this work – not that you are harmed or hurt in any way but that you have decided to stop being blind to the injustices. End the façade. Lose your innocence. I want to give myself to the destruction of my comfort zone. You want to talk about innocence lost? I’ll tell you hundreds of stories – I’ve been hearing them since I was fifteen. Fifteen, when we began whispering about the friend who was raped and another friend said the word “assault” to me for the first time because that was the word she knew to describe what happened to her. I can tell you the first time the pain started coming out of the mouths around me. I can tell you the first time it brought me to my knees.
So I graduated into advocacy work, and survivors found me night and day to share their weeping. Then I graduated to working crisis lines to listen to strangers and it was no easier than hearing my friends and peers. Then, I chose this career path because I don’t want innocence but only hope.
I’ll tell you about the pursuit of faith and maintenance of strength. I’ll tell you about aspirations amidst the trenches of despair – I’ll tell you, I haven’t had fifteen years of dealing with “clients,” head shrinking. I haven’t had fifteen years of failing to save the dying sad of the world, doing tough work in desperate systems… I haven’t had my heart broken. But I’ve been listening to friends tell stories since I was a teenager. Yet, I still believe my dreams will not let me down. So I place that word under my tongue, “Idealist.” I whisper it to myself as I fall asleep at night. Who I want to be: Someone who holds onto so much hope that no one can understand why.
I interviewed a woman in 2010, a social worker, in Iceland once who spent decades of working with rape, abuse, and trafficking victims. Yet, she described the magic she felt and the beauty and excitement that kept her coming to work. Of the many things she said, she remarked, “Many people think it’s crazy to like working with violence but I do. I see the possibilities… I can feel happiness in the small things, in everyday things.” That’s what inspires me.
No, you don’t give yourself to tears. You give yourself to the precious reality that your life is all you have… and I will take my life and my hope to work with my clients. I’ll not carry the tragedies but carry on in the soft dream of better. Don’t give me your broken. That heart and dream you iced over instead of fighting for. I always want the hope.
“I’m an idealist. I’ll admit it,” another, braver student says today when someone warns us about our excitement and eager joy. When she says it, I look at her in awe and admire. It’s the most dangerous thing a person can do, like admitting vulnerability, to say, “I hope.” It leaves you fresh for disappointment.
Or does it?
I believe there is a way to hold onto your emotional capacity for all beautiful things, life and hope amidst the darker tragedies of life. It’s possible, through self-care and positive social support and laughter, through faith and asking for help when you need it. Idealism is not as difficult as it seems to maintain. In fact, it’s liberating.
Last night, I went with the students and some of the teachers from the International Institute, where I volunteer in the citizenship literacy classes, to a symphony. It was a performance celebrating the 50 years that have passed since Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech.” The stage and grand seating of Powell symphony hall powerfully filled with the music of call and responses, freedom songs, mantras from the civil rights movement, and I was moved with the joy of hope and freedom – of people struggling. I sat on stage with my students, refugees and immigrants, “starting dreams here” (as the woman introducing them remarked to the audience) – starting dreams here in America, not giving up on them.
In watching, I felt a renewed parallel to the words of those days and what social workers continue to struggle for: Freedom, justice, hope. Today, I feel justified in my insistence that I don’t exchange my passion for cynicism. After all, MLK was, as I am, an idealist.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr. February 4, 1968.