History Is on Our Side

December 7, 2004

Graduation Speech
Tulane School of Social Work
By Craig S. Barnes

Well, congratulations. You have come to the end of one phase and the beginning of another. This may be good news or bad news, depending upon what lies ahead for each of you; or it may not even be news. You may have suspected that this was coming. But at times like this it is appropriate to ask someone from outside to come and help imagine a bridge between what you have been doing and what is coming next. So I am here to tell you that we need you; that the world needs you, and that we are glad that you are on the way.

You know, we did not always live like this. Before the 1920s we did not, most of us, live in big cities. We have not always lived without benefit of family identity, where sir-names tell us so little about who we are or where we came from. We have not always lived in cultures wherein some members of one cast were rising up to the next level and some members of the old elite were falling down. We have not always lived where neighborhoods were an unstable swirl of unpredictable comings and goings. We have not always lived so removed from the seasons and the weather, insulated by electric lights from the darkness and by air conditioning from the sun; separated by supermarkets from the cycles of planting or the harvest. We have not always lived in conversation with mythical TV personalities or singers or movie stars who talk to us but to whom we can never respond, conversations which are always one-sided and empty of us, have no part of us in them. There is nothing about watching a TV personality or a movie star or a rock singer which is like a family at dinner. There is no two-way in these conversations no give and take connection to their ranting or to their laughter, to their pain or to their joy, or to ours. We know more about everybody else and less about ourselves and have never been so alone.

Which is of course why we need you.

When I think of the long sweep of history I think of social work as a part of our response to the chaos and confusion that comes from modernization. All the independence we have, all the individuality we seek, all the atomization of culture, has its price. We give every kid his own bed and his own car and in return make every kid separate, independent from his family, and lonely. So we give every kid a cell phone to reconnect him to his or her friends, to some network of other human beings. We are pulling out of culture and desperately reaching back, every minute.

Every herd species, and we are surely one, likes to be in a crowd and at the center of the crowd life is least threatening. But materialism lets every man and every woman have his or her own opinion, have his or her own taste in music, or his or her own taste in clothes and with that we drift out of the crowd, we take away secure anonymity, or secure blending with the herd, or secure knowledge that at any moment we do NOT stand alone. On the one hand we want to be out of sight of the lions that roam the periphery, on the other hand, as we have more material things we are forever pushing away from our fellows out into danger. So we have these pressures from our innate nature to re-join and merge with the crowd and these opposite pressures from modern materialism to separate and individuate away from the crowd and the result is confusion.

When, in the millennia before the modern era, we lived together in little knots on the farm or in villages the web of civilized conduct was reinforced constantly because we dealt with the same family and neighbors all our lives and had so little to do with strangers. But with urbanization the web of civilized conduct is pulling apart and the job of social workers seems to be to help to weave again the strands of compassion and caring, to substitute for the lost herd, or in human terms we call it the lost clan, or the lost family, or the lost community. Social workers are something like construction workers of the heart, healing the schism between our herd natures and our atomizing modern culture, re-creating something like family when because of all the centrifugal force there is no clan left, no web of unspoken understandings to help us feel together or hold together. And social workers are more and more needed as this materialism spreads into every home and disconnects teenagers from parents, disconnects great corporations from ordinary people, and leaves so many of us coping economically on our own, outside the herd or the family and against overwhelming odds.

Social workers are a part of our response to this trend of materialistic history and in a sense you are midwives to the new civilization. You are midwives because the world is going through a birthing century and the new skills which are required are going to have a lot more to do with birthing and fostering accommodation to change, finding ways to breed life, to honor life, even to accommodate to the uncertainties of life than the old skills of making empire and hunting and killing. We used to think of safety as coming from dominion and power either of kings or bishops or even domineering fathers and gradually in this last century we have come to see that safety comes from—and there is strength in—compassion and decency, fair play and civility, working together rather than fighting together.

What I am trying to say is that you fit into a very large context, that you are a part of a response to the catastrophic loss of all the old institutions of compassion. The feudal lord who took care of the serfs is gone, and in our world so too is the iron-clad social control of the family, the clan and the village, or the moral control of the church or the synagogue. Some of the old institutions have slowly over the centuries even become institutions more of separation than of consolidation, more apt to emphasize our differences than our need for each other.

And while therefore modern science has brought us the refrigerator and the airplane, it has also brought us loneliness and anger, greed and raging self interest. Social workers are therefore midwives to civilization in this sense, too: you could be the ones to help us bridge between the new and the old, to carry over the customs and traditions of family caring into the cold world of science and big corporations and massive military power; you could be the humanizers, the blenders, the conciliators, those who blow on the coals of the heart.

You are a part of what we mean, now, today, in these new times, when we talk about civilization. You are—let us be very clear—part of one tradition and not another. Civilization is not the same as militarization. Ever since the rise of cities in the first millennium BCE, ever since trade spread across the Mediterranean Sea since Troy and Ugarit, Tyre and Sidon—great names of old—Athens and Sicily, ever since the Phoenicians sailed out beyond Gibraltar, there has been a gradual spread of materialism and even religions to sanctify materialism, religions to sanctify male dominion, myths to sanctify patrilineal descent and heroism, monuments to honor the spread of military power of the Assyrians, of the Persians, of the Athenians, of Alexander the Great, of Caesar, of Hadrian and all these are well understood in our lore and well remembered. All of these are myths of militarization and conquest, power and dominion.

On the other side of the ledger of history, oddly more powerful but less well remembered, is that stream of culture of which you are now, today, a part, that stream that has forever honored the cycles of life, the revolutions of the moon and the sun, the miracle of growth in the spring and the miracle of birth of the calf, the lamb and the child. This other compassionate tradition has been the subject of fewer monuments but has all these centuries nevertheless been more constantly sustained. When we turn history over and look at the unpublished story we see that the story in the heart, the gleam of love and compassion is the story of an unquenchable fire. That fire was in Hildegard von Bingam, and Joan of Arc, and Mary Sidney and Ann Hutchinson and Florence Nightingale and is in you and is why you are here. You cannot help but be here. You cannot help but be here because in you is a fire that violence and abuse and militarization cannot not contain; human compassion is a flame that will not die.

You might wonder if that is just graduation-speech talk. But I am a former trial lawyer and so am prepared to present evidence for the jury. You wonder if history is with you; here is just a sample from the mountain of that evidence.

Wherever pyramids were built, where the great Parthenon was built on the acropolis of Athens, where the stones of Roman roads were laid down across an empire from Egypt to Britain, grass inevitably came up through the cracks, trees pushed aside the columns and the cobblestones. Life has its own yearning and its own inexorable, straining power to regenerate and grow. Life has proved to be more full of force and energy than even the monuments of the Caesars. Life pushes through the cracks in modern freeways and the rooftops of condominiums and so the compassionate tradition of which you are a part, the life-giving tradition of which social work is a part, keeps coming back, keeps renewing itself, like the grass in the spring and from the long view of history there seems to be nothing that can stop you. Maybe you are noble, maybe you are ordinary, but whatever your grandeur or whatever your flaws you are in league with the force of life, or the life force, which keeps pushing up everywhere. Life’s yearning for itself is the greatest power on the planet and you are in league with that.

Last month, my 14-year-old grandson and I were looking at a book which included pictures of the Roman coliseum. It still stands in the center of Rome, 2,000 years, more or less, after it was built. But the insides have been torn apart. Seats are gone and walls are gone and the floor of the stadium is gone. Where did it all go to, my grandson wanted to know? We didn’t know for sure but we decided that all those stones must have been taken by people down through the Middle Ages who wanted the materials for houses or shops. There is something wonderful about that. The Coliseum where they burned the Christians and the Jews and honored the horrific brutality of gladiators got torn down and turned into something useful for ordinary people, to protect life, to keep life going. The Coliseum was an aberration; it did not last. In the end it is houses and shops that get built and that do last. Today, all over the city of Rome there must be hundreds of houses and shops and even churches with Coliseum stones way down there at the bottom, turned to a new, more beneficent use.

Today also, more than in any century in history, you, the compassionate corps, the construction workers of the heart, are not alone. In those days 3,000 years ago when the spread of materialism and empire was first in full swing there were only a few. There were one or two poets of compassion, Sappho and Euripides, one of two philosophers of compassion, and then over the centuries the Hebrew prophets, leaders like Jesus and Mohammad, but on the whole for the first two thousand years of materialism and empire and urbanization social workers were few.

In those years we mostly thought that power came from spears and swords, from armies and empire, from dominion and control. Today, the work of the alternative solution, the non-military solution, the furtherance-of-life project, is being done by poets and psychotherapists, social workers and editors, authors and playwrights, bloggers and singers, dancers and well-read parents who sit at the end of the bed and tell their children about fair play and tolerance. To cry out for the poor you no longer have to be a biblical prophet. To publish a song of human suffering you no longer have to have access to a New York agent and a London publisher; you can do it yourself on your own desk with your own color printer. Today the society of the compassionate is global beyond our wildest imaginations 50 years ago.

And social work is literally going global. When I lived and worked in the Soviet Union in the 1980s psychologists were apt to be servants of the totalitarian regime, throwing people into psychiatric wards because of their political views, declaring anyone who contested the power of the Soviet State as unhealthy, sick, needing a cure. Social workers did not exist and psychotherapists were tools of the regime. By the 1990s, after the fall of empire, the network of young, independent psychotherapists was still fragile and scared and no one would be likely to tell his or her most dangerous personal fears to a stranger. The stranger was more likely to be KGB than Jungian. Today, only 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union there are thousands of people studying psychology and social work and people—like Tulane’s own Lynn Perlmutter—who are veterans of years of working together with those new and emerging professions in Lithuania, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajickistan.

There are people now in Baku and Vilnius and St. Petersburg who know more than you do, and who can teach you something. There are people there now who know less than you do, and to whom you can teach something. You are part of a global profession, with global colleagues. This emergent global community of the civilized and the compassionate, and of which you today become a part, is inevitably that group of people who from time to time in human history have said, “The violence among us is not working. The corruption of the spirit among us is eating us alive. We need a new way of being and a new way of seeing.” Today that community has become global.

What I hope you are beginning to see is that the work you do is a requirement of history, the requirement of forces which have been in effect and gradually growing for more than 3,000 years. It is not a matter of the federal policies of this four years, or the last four years, or democrats or republicans or red states or blue states. With ubanization over the last 3,000 years has come materialism and separation and greed and empire and war. But the power of these forces has never been strong enough to stamp out the power of your concern, the compassion of the human, which dwells within you some days like a cry and a pain and some days like a warm glow that fills all outdoors. That cry and that glow will not ever be extinguished because it is part of your nature; it is part of what it is to be human. Try as hard as the emperors and militarists and accountants of the bottom lines of great corporations will, they cannot extinguish that flame that each of you brings just because you were born, and all of you have chosen now with this career to emphasize and make that flame your calling card, your primary relation to the world. You are not different than everybody else because everybody has the flame of compassion. But you are luckier than everyone else because you have chosen to live compassion in your whole lives to plant yourself squarely with the power of that force.

Congratulations. You made the right choice. History is on your side. Nothing can stop you. In this new century, because you are bridging the gap between families and culture, because you are healing the wounded herd and restoring relationships, rebuilding community, you will be the architects, house by house and heart by heart of the new world. You know what to do. Now just go out and do it.