Friday, November 12, 2010
MUSINGS ON THE BYSTANDER
’ Wrong Side of the Bus’ is a movie featuring a seldom addressed theme: the person who sees an injustice but rather than flee or fight as Freud conceptualized, chooses to stay and stand by... The main character, a white psychiatrist, trained in Cape Town, South Africa and then emigrated to Australia because he felt he could not live in a country that was ruled by Apartheid principles is haunted by feelings of guilt that he did nothing to question or act against the racist rules of the South African government. The story follows him as he returns to Cape Town for the 40th reunion of his Medical School classmates. He is searching for some kind of reconciliation or forgiveness for his ‘do-nothing’ stance. From everyone: his classmates; his mother’s former nurse; several black ladies he randomly meets in the audience of a renowned theater and finally the guide (and a former inmate) at the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years.
Regardless of these individuals’ responses, ranging from full forgiveness to indifference to his haunting guilt, the protagonist just cannot let it go. He wants it to disappear. He wants to be free from the torment that he did nothing to raise a hand against a sickening law and its noxious consequences. His guilt dominated and controlled his life. I came away from the film with a growing annoyance for this highly trained educated man.
And as I talked with my film going partners, I began to see the relevance of the bystander concept to social work practice. Often I get calls from social workers asking or even complaining that NASW is not doing anything or enough to end homelessness, or reduce the cuts to social service programs or to stop managed care and insurance company cuts in reimbursement rates to clinical social workers. On a different level, I hear that one’s therapy progress is stuck, going nowhere. “I still feel terrible that I didn’t do more for my mother when she was alive’ or that ‘I didn’t tell someone about the abuse.’
We all can be affected by what we didn’t do or didn’t do enough of or what we did that we are ashamed of. Somewhere along the line some of us got what I consider a ‘distorted’ idea that we, the social work profession, can always be the problem solvers, the fixers, the guilt relievers. Another way of looking at this could be: We do the best we can as transformers or contributors to positive change, but that many times, we do not get the results we hoped for. Sometimes, we do nothing on one issue because we are involved in others just as meaningful. And other times, we may just watch. We indeed are bystanders. It is this latter stance that I wish to address, particularly for those of us who have clinical backgrounds.
I came away thinking that this person well never rid himself of his guilt. He is, in a way, hard wired to feel guilty. It is his default position. And that what clinicians (and those of us in the field that worry about what we haven’t done enough of) may have to do is help ourselves and others just ‘be with’ those old, persistent feelings and on a parallel track, proceed with our lives in the areas where we can make a difference. So we didn’t intervene when that bad thing was happening and we think we should have? We just watched or held back? The challenge or assignment for us could be; Let it go to free our energies for what we can do now. I many ways, life is so complicated and immense that we have always been occasional bystanders, we will always be bystanders and we definitely are bystanders right now.