Being Bread for Others:

Abiding Images, Master Metaphors and Stories that Sustain
Spiritually Oriented Human Service Workers
by Chelsea Wakefield, MSW, LCSW

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for the handicapped once wrote about how important it is for people to know that their word, smile, being, or prayer is something that can nourish others and restore trust.  We are fed the “bread of life” so that we might become “bread for others”.  Bread, the basic food of life, is the sacramental symbol of the mystical body of Christ.  Many individuals enter human service work as a ministry, with a desire and sense of calling to “be bread for others”.

Historically, spiritual motivations have undergirded movements for civil rights, social reform, justice and peace.  Many of the hospitals, schools, and social programs in existence today evolved out of a history of service provision by religious persons in response to human need (Anderson, 1995; Canda, 1988a, 1988b; Dinitto, 1995; Faver, 2004; Holland, 1989; Loewenberg, 1988; Netting et al, 1990, as cited in Wakefield, 1999).

As compelling and inspiring as the image of “being bread for others” may be, there is a potential danger in it.  In recent years the term “compassion fatigue” has been developed to describe a particular type of “burnout” that occurs among health and human service workers (Figley, 1995; La Rowe, 2002).  It is appropriate to include clergy in this same group, as research shows that they frequently operate as front line human service workers (Wakefield, 1999).  In recent years, this writer has become increasingly interested in the factors that deplete or sustain human service workers.  Of particular interest is the subgroup who have entered the field to provide service out of a deep sense of spiritual or religious “calling”.

In a ten year study of human service professionals, Cherniss (1995) identified a number of factors that contribute to burning out and dropping out of human service work.  The two primary ones were inadequate preparation for the realities of the job, and inadequate support on the job, especially at the beginning of a career.  He found that workers were trained to practice in a social vacuum, with no preparation for dealing with systemic and organizational dysfunction, and uncooperative, unappreciative, or clinically challenging clients.  In entering the field, workers had an expectation of collegiality and support, which did not materialize in environments where there were increasing demands for efficiency corresponding with decreasing resources.  Inadequacy began to plague them.  There was no time for human connection.  In the face of these challenges, workers became frustrated, demoralized, and disillusioned.  The initial idealism, altruism, and compassion that called them into the work in the first place came to be seen as unaffordable luxuries.  The bottom line of “burnout” was a loss of the sense that one’s work had any meaning.  They were willing to trade making a lot of money for a job with meaning, but to do without both was unbearable.

A recent article in the Journal of Social Work asked the question of how service providers who are spiritually oriented, sustain themselves in their work.  Faver (2004) determined that four relational factors contributed greatly to the sustenance of providers over time; 1) perceived connection to a sacred source; 2) a sense of efficacy in connection with one’s work, 3) a connection to a supportive community; and 4) the personal learning and growth that comes from an authentic human connection with one’s clients.

Spiritually oriented human service providers, clergy, and caregivers are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout, because their core values are “other” oriented.  Spiritual teachings throughout time have focused on values of self-lessness, self-sacrifice, and service to others.  The emphasis is to forego present day gratification or reward in favor of a greater reward in the spiritual realm, or eternity (Flinders, 1998; Richards, et al, 1997).  Even in this age of materialism, people of deep faith continue to center their lives around values and activities of ultimate concern and to conform their lives to spiritual principles rather than conform to “the world”.
In working with spiritually oriented human service workers and clergy who are in personal crisis regarding their professional paths, this writer has found it useful to examine the following parallel life tracks: 1) faith development/formation, 2) pivotal life experiences, and 3) vocational choice and 4) the master stories and metaphors, significant symbols/abiding images, and internalized role models that are woven throughout.  In looking at the interrelationship between these four areas, significant connections and new insights arise as clients “connect the dots” of development, context, content, symbolic material, meaning and choice points.

Ira Progoff once said, “the sincere examination of the individual human life is one of the fundamental religious acts” (1975, 1992, p. 82).  He devoted his life to researching and developing a system of inner work that came to be known as “The Intensive Journal Workshop”.  This process involves a series of progressive exercises in which participants enter into a meditative state and then to allow a sequence of memories to surface regarding a particular topic.  They record these “stepping stones” on a time line and later return to them in subsequent interactive exercises.  The purpose is “to draw out of a jumbled mass of life experience the thin and elusive connective threads that carry over potentialities through their phases of development, toward a fuller unfolding” (p. 76).  The process creates a panoramic overview of interrelationship between seemingly separate events and areas of experience.  The realizations and connections that come to participants as a result, open up new possibilities in situations that previously appeared to be static.  Progoff found that individuals who engaged in this process, began to discover inner resources they were previously unaware of, and to solve problems and make choices from a deeper and wiser place.  The ultimate goal of this work was to establish a consistent connection to a person’s central sustaining force of life.

Narrative and metaphor oriented therapists agree that if you change the stories that a person tells about his or her life, you will change the way that life is experienced and the subsequent conclusions.  By pulling forward alternative events in the life history or bringing new interpretations to the same events, you ultimately change the meaning of that life.  “Re-storying” content is a powerful therapeutic technique (Freedman and Combs, 1996; White and Epston, 1990).

In addition to the stories we tell about ourselves, there is another set of stories that have a significantly influence in our lives.   James Fowler (1981) refers to these as “master stories”, and writes about how significantly they shape our character and faith orientation.  They are deeply embedded in us and determine how we interpret and respond to the events that impinge on our lives.  They are drawn from a wide variety of places, but are woven in with our human development over time.

Christian believers learn these “master stories” in Sunday school as children, and from pulpits and sacred literature as adults.  These stories are internalized as part of our faith formation and become the measure of our progress towards becoming “good Christians” (Fowler, 1981).

Master stories for all of life are drawn from fairy tails, family stories, ethnic and cultural history, biographies we have read, people we have known, heroes and role models in our educational process.  Even movies, television, and media that we consume for casual entertainment, provides material for our “master stories”.  As we internalize this cast of characters, over time they begin to take on a life of their own within us.  We are largely unaware of the extent to which they influence and shape our lives, as they  “have their say” about our experiences, choices and behaviors.  Significant anxiety can be produced when the internalized characters of our master stories are in conflict with one another (Wakefield, 2004).

A metaphor is a devise we use to describe something in terms of something else.  To say that metaphors are “heavily laced” throughout this article utilizes a metaphor.   Metaphors are the only vehicle we have that can describe and convey subjective experience: feelings, aesthetic values, morals, and spiritual awareness.  But metaphors are much more than a descriptive devise.

Metaphors pervade our entire conceptual system and are a primary tool for organizing and understanding our experience. They are like windows into the central organizing concepts of our lives, into our deepest core beliefs.  They underlie cognitive processes and operate like matrixes.  Psychologist Richard Kopp (1995) states that there are six substructures organized by metaphors, that of self, others, life, and the relationship between each of these.
Philosopher linguists Lakoff and Johnson (1980) demonstrate how dramatically different our understanding of constructs or words can be.  Take love for instance, if we think of love in terms of a physical force, we use words like electricity, sparks, gravitated, revolved, charged, attracted.  If love is madness, we talk about it with words like crazy, gone mad, gone wild, insane.  If love is war, we think and talk in terms of conquests, fighting for, pursuing, fending off, overpowering, winning the hand, etc.

Metaphors are like icebergs.  Our choice of metaphors reveals the very essence of who we are, and how we think.  We see the tip of them in the choice of words that we use in conversation, but the constructs they represent are hidden beneath the surface. It is no wonder that the process of communication is often times so difficult to navigate, when seemingly simple words collide with the associations hidden beneath.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggest that we would all be greatly helped by developing an awareness of the metaphors we live by and how they enter into and affect our everyday lives.  They propose that we engage in the practice of studying alternative metaphors and “trying them on” in order to view life differently.  Developing experiential flexibility by consciously shifting metaphors opens up a whole new source of creative resource for people.  Altering an organizing metaphor has the power to create new meaning in our lives.

Metaphors and symbols operate in much the same way.  Both are representative of something else.  The difference is that a symbol is an object or a sign that exists in space.  Language is metaphoric, art is symbolic.  Objects are not inherently symbolic.  They become symbolic over time as we attach meaning to them.  Good examples of this are the Christian Cross, the American flag, or the band of gold we call a wedding ring.

The power of the symbol to affect us subjectively is determined by how much meaning has been attached to it over time.  The poet Cathy Smith Bowers refers to a person’s significant symbol set as “abiding images”.  These are the very personal, lingering pictures that hold tremendous power, emotion and energy for us

Certain symbols appear to be common to all human experience.  They appear across all cultures, in all times.  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to these symbols as “archetypal” and believed that they sprang from a shared “collective unconscious” (Clift, 1997).

In working with individuals who have tried to be “bread for others” only to find themselves consumed, some common themes have emerged.  Intertwined with faith development and vocation choices appear images, metaphors and stories such as: the “obedient but suffering servant”, the “willing sacrifice”, the one who “gives his life for his brother”, ” needing to “die to ourselves”, “bear one another’s burdens”, “the firsts will be last, and the last will be first”.   Because “God never gives you more than you can handle”, there is often a sense of personal and spiritual failure.  What is wrong with me that I can’t bear this or handle this?  For many Christians, there is a comparison of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the sense that any personal suffering is dwarfed compared to this.  To be good Christians, we are called to pick up our crosses and follow him. We should not complain

These master stories are not wrong in themselves, but if they are unbalanced by stories of resurrection, restoration, renewal, healing, wholeness, and nurturance, they can yield fruits of exhaustion, guilt, anger, bitterness, depression, and sometimes a significant crisis of faith.   Stories that emphasize humility, lowliness, suffering and sacrifice, neglect a very important aspect of the God of the Bible.  God is on the side of the poor, the weak and the oppressed.  God also appears to have emotions and to set limits.  A Christian human service worker may struggle with the concept of limits, standards, and the wisdom of self-care when they themselves have become one of weak, poor, or suffering.  At a deep level, self care and limits may be experienced as selfish and worldly and ultimately in conflict with the true values of Christianity.  Even though self care may make sense and sound like a “good idea”, it will not be lived out if it is in conflict with deep symbolic material where sacrifice is central to the story.

One of the most significant shifts that can occur in the life of the spiritually oriented service worker is a deep restructuring of their central stories and metaphors to those that nourish, give life, and restore trust.  Christians are “resurrection people”.   On the other side of sacrifice, death and suffering are images of new life, new sources of strength and power, abiding presence, healing, replenishment, and wholeness.

Porter (2000) has outlined four models of servant leadership in the empowering biblical stories of 1) the midwife (Puah and Shiprah- Exodus 1:15-22), 2) the choreographer (Miriam- Exodus 2&15, Numbers 12), 3) the weaver/relational leader (Deborah- Judges 4&5), and 4) the intercessor/translator (The Book of Esther).   These models are especially important for women.

Brennan and Brewi (1999) have outlined many biblical stories, metaphors and images of transformation, re-birth, wisdom, power, wonder, and healing.  These include:  coming out of bondage, the journey and the return, of being lost and found, challenging the inner Pharisee, or the inner Martha, of blinding illumination, and sudden sight,  of mothering, shepherding, gardening, fishing, baking, of being the salt of the earth, having sufficient food for all, being the branches of a life giving vine, of living water, and deep wells of hope and possibility, of coming forth from the tomb, of the child of wonder, of being unbound, or spontaneously healed, etc.

In addition to the metaphors, abiding images, and master stories found in the Bible, there are an endless source of life giving metaphors, abiding images, and stories to be found in creation, world history, mythology, and art.

One of the most significant factors that have become evident in working with committed, but depleted human service workers, is a struggle with what we have come to term “boundaries”.  Christian psychologists Cloud and Townsend (1992) have written extensively in this area, backing up their teaching with stories and principles from scripture.  They discuss in depth the many myths and misunderstandings that contribute to the difficulty persons of faith have with boundaries, limits, and self-care.  Saying no without guilt, differentiating self from others, and determining where, how, when and with whom to set limits are where devout Christians can get into trouble.  There is a time and a place for everything (Eccl. 3), and a balance in the giving and receiving.  We also need to allow others to learn from natural consequences and to grow into their God given capabilities.  These are confusing issues for many Christians and especially to those who work in ministries of compassionate service.

Devotional author, religious scholar, and contemplative, Richard Foster (1995) writes about his own struggles with over-commitment and speaks of how he came to understanding that not all calls to serve are to be answered with a “yes”.  Discernment is important to the process.  To say “no” out of a divinely centered place is a sacramental act.

Many human service workers enter the field out of a deep need to heal the pain, poverty, or violence that they once experienced themselves.  The archetype of the wounded healer is that of the one who has suffered, healed, and can now heal others.  Sometimes, when personal healing work is not complete, it becomes all too easy to over identify with the pain of our past in the lives of those we serve.  Even those who have done a lot of personal healing work, can be caught off guard and become re-traumatized if they do not have somewhere to process the difficult experiences human service workers encounter.  With the current pressure for efficiency, providers frequently do not get sufficient support, rest and spiritual replenishment.  Self-care is critically important to those who work with human beings in pain (La Rowe, 2002).  Sometimes what masquerades as service to others is really an attempt to heal the unresolved woundedness in our own lives.  One of the greatest services we as human service workers can do for our clients is to continue the process of our own healing and to know the difference between self and other.

To paraphrase the findings of Faver (2004) in terms of this article, we, as spiritually oriented human service workers can sustain our work by 1) maintaining our connection to a sacred source, through prayer, spiritual direction, and worship.  We can also claim abiding images, metaphors and master stories that will empower and nourish us.  2) We can measure our success based on spiritually grounded values, practices, and principles rather than on numbers and efficiency reports.  3) We can find or form a community of fellow pilgrims with which to share our joys and struggles in this sacred journey called life, and 4) We can commit to looking for the sacred/Christ in all people, encounters and situations.
The great medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich lived in a time of war, plague, political corruption, and pervasive poverty.  In many ways, it was a time not unlike ours.  She spent her life in a small room adjoining a church in Norwich, giving spiritual counsel to pilgrims who sought answers to the questions of where God was in the midst of tragedy, violence, and trouble.  She was known for these words of assurance, “all shall be well”, which she stated repeatedly over the course of her eighty plus years,  (Nelson, 2001).
How was Julian able to continue to affirm this in the face of so much suffering and contradiction?  My answer to that is that she was a woman anchored in the eternal, a woman who lived continually in prayer, and in the knowledge of the abiding love of Christ.  She knew deeply that in the fullness of time all would be made right.
We too can be very clear that suffering and injustice is real in this world.  At the same time, we can do God’s work each day with compassion, courage and conviction, and trust that in times when it appears that our work is for naught, we are still laying the bricks, and scattering the seeds, weaving the threads while God holds the loom, and the larger picture.
Both Mother Theresa and the Archbishop Oscar Romero were great servants of the poor.  They realized that we cannot do everything, but we can do small things well.  Romero drew strength from his underlying metaphors of the gardener, the builder, and the baker.  In the famous “Prayer of Oscar Romero”, we are reminded that “it helps now and then to step back and take the long view”, that our job is to plant and water the seeds, to lay foundations, and to provide the yeast.  In many cases, we do not see the end result.  But that is because “we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.”  If we trust in the sovereignty of God, we can know that in the fullness of time, the Kingdom of God will be made manifest, and all will be well.

This article originally published by NACSW in their 2004 Annual Conference online journal.


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Chelsea Wakefield, MSW, LCSW is a Jungian oriented social worker, workshop and retreat leader in private practice in North Carolina. She would welcome your comments.

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