Lost in Translation

By Jeremy Millar

Date Posted: Sunday, 1 June 2008


Jeremy Millar describes himself as a Lecturer in Social Work and a practicing human being. Certainly Jeremy teaches on the BA and BA(Hons) Social Work (Residential Child Care) by Distance Learning, and the BA and BA (Hons) Social Work courses at Robert Gordon’s University, Aberdeen. His research interests which include Care Leavers, Participation, and Cultural Competence vouchsafe his status as a concerned and practicing human being. In an article which is jaunty and humorous in tone, Jeremy, from a humanist position, raises uncomfortable but fundamental questions about the personal qualities required of someone who provides professional care and at the same time he challenges us to think about the validity of the current social inclusion/exclusion paradigm.



Lost in Translation


I belong to a number of what may be termed communities of practice which offer a platform to explore both the philosophy underpinning our work in the social care field and the realities of translating our values into practice. One recent discussion on CYC-net www.cyc-net.org looked at personal favouritism in our work with children and young people.

In attempting to disentangle the personal, “I struggle to spend time in the company of Johnny” from the more universal value informed assertion that; “I care for all people equally” It might be helpful to address this knotty paradox by focussing on the core value of ‘unconditional positive regard’ which is introduced in many social work courses. How do we truly engage with this value?

As I age and perhaps develop some wisdom I am coming to a sense that Rogers and others are talking about a deep love of humanity in all its guises. The acceptance of the ‘other’ has to be from the heart without artifice. This value is in itself arguably conditional on our personal journey and our sense of an unconditional loving experience in our own lives.

This is potentially where this discussion gets seriously complicated; if one has had a poor or non-existent experience of unconditional love, are we able to offer it to others? Can we teach this value in the classroom or is it best modelled in the practice setting? Is it our role as educators and supervisors to ‘love’ our students and colleagues? If we believe that such a value is crucial to the task of working therapeutically with children and young people who have been seriously damaged by negative attachment experiences, should we actively screen workers for their ability to empathically connect with those in their care without exercising personal favour?
In order to mitigate for some of the complexities highlighted above we need, at the least, to practice in environments that supports and models from the top down unconditional positive regard. We need to educate and supervise in a manner that promotes personal reflection and self discovery of this capacity. Rogers was optimistic about the human condition, believing that we all have the resources for personal growth. It would be a policy of despair, in our field, to believe otherwise.

To create the space for growth, personally and within our organisations we need to speak out against the oppressive systems in our lives, workplaces, communities and society in general that distance us from our capacity to love unconditionally.
We are failing those in our duty of care if we allow our workplaces to replicate the hierarchical power systems that ration resources based on discriminatory subjective choices and prevailing notions of deserving and undeserving recipients.

One choice is to see ourselves as all being in the same boat striving towards the same goal, one of reaching out to those most unlovable and in so doing bringing humanity closer together.
There is a strong political sub text to this approach that involves the capacity to love our oppressors and in so doing bring them to the capacity for unconditional positive regard. I haven’t quite worked this one out yet!


28 Aug 2008    Alison Poltock comments
Surely an ‘unconditional positive regard’ born of an intellectual understanding of all the issues is far more reliable than the temperamental fluctuations of the heart? I think empathy can be learned and comes from the understanding of another human being’s struggle. Recognition of the reasons for ‘unsympathetic’ behaviour is key to feeling empathy. I wonder if it may be better to screen workers for a shared rather than opposing history: finding those that have grown through a similar struggle and come to ‘feel’ empathy as a result of truly understanding its import.


29 Aug 2008,    Jeremy Millar responds
I would agree that one can indeed learn to empathise and this ability is key to nurturing the Other. In respect of the merit of the worker themselves having similar previous experiences I am not sure how relevant this is. Part of me thinks of spiritual leaders and charismatic individuals who are unconditionally open to people and have an intangible healing quality to their presence. What is it about them and how can these qualities be adapted to the residential setting?
I am inclined to an analogy of Buddhist practice in which we develop a good habit of constant shedding of ego attachments to the sufferings of the physical world. At the practical level this involves reflexivity in a relaxed steady manner. The practices of being ever open to the moment; be it the sunset, a whiff of cigar or the cry of anguish in a troubled soul.Needless to say the practice is hard, often perversely, because others in pain demand a heightened emotional response to validate their suffering. Not complying with this pressure equates to the idea of being alongside someone rather than enmeshed in some reciprocal expression of neediness. Other workers in my experience can feel threatened by what they may characterise as an uncaring/aloof attitude, however the young people relate well to this steadiness and predictability of character which is often coupled with a passion and energy for an interest completely out with the daily concerns of the milieu. I reminded of the documentary called ‘Bad boys’ on the work carried out at Pepper Harrow. This one lad gained an abiding interest in classical Greek through the input of one passionate staff member. Could that happen in our regulated world. Have we still the ability to think ourselves into these possible worlds?
I’ll stop before the tangents become more obtuse.