Finding Peace with Pencil

Looking back over a career inevitably prompts some nostalgia – not necessarily because the “old days” were always that good, but because of colleagues, friends and coworkers who came alongside to cast a light on the path. It’s these relationships that many of us recall the most, the content of which made life meaningful, as they continue to do, even today.

“Life must be lived forward but understood backward,” is a quote attributed to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. He’s right!

I was a 19-year-old pre-theology and history major when I worked my first summer on the Beatrice campus of what is now Mosaic. As part of the orientation, there was a tour of the large state facility for people with intellectual disabilities. The tour concluded in the infirmaries, where dozens of people lay in metal cribs, people with significant physical, intellectual and sensory challenges. The staff in charge commented, “Now, there’s nothing that can be done for these children.”

Even as a 19-year-old history and English major, I rebelled at that statement, and thought to myself, “Surely there’s something that someone could do for these people.” Then, with great finality, I thought to myself, “If it’s the last place on earth, I’ll never work here in this place!”

Four years later, after changing majors two times, graduating from college and finishing a year of study in Berlin, I found myself working at exactly “that place,” in an innovative and ground-breaking program for the people in the infirmaries. My plans changed.

The field of intellectual disabilities changed, too. At that very time, “deinstitutionalization” was the order of the day, with drastic downsizing and even closures of large congregate facilities. “Normalization” was the byword, as people left institutions for group homes, which were often set up for six to 10 people.

Neighborhood opposition to group homes was typically overcome, sometimes through zoning commissions, sometimes through court hearings. The field kept changing, with “habilitation” being the goal for those residing in group homes. “Active treatment” involved “programming,” overseen by an Interdisciplinary Team.

And the field kept changing. Group homes were downsized, often supporting three individuals. Planning became more and more person-centered, with less emphasis on addressing “deficits,” and more on building on strengths. The pioneering “sheltered workshop” in Beatrice that was recognized nationally no longer operates as such. The field kept changing.

Now it’s group homes that are being downsized still further, and sometimes closed, and individual supports are being provided in the person’s own home, often by contract staff instead of employees.  Host home living arrangements are now available, as people open up their own homes to include people who need that context. ​

And the changes, and the challenges, will continue.

It’s not only the field of diverse needs that has seen changes, of course. In education, some of us can recall, “A nation at risk,” and then years later, “No child left behind.” In corporate culture, too, there was “Total Quality Management,” and then “Continuous Quality Improvement,” and on and on.

Some observers might be dismissive of all these trends as just “the latest fad.” In retrospect, however, I see them as each generation’s efforts to identify and positively address ongoing human issues – some efforts being rather successful, others, not so much. And I recall the old aphorism, “When Plan A fails, there are twenty-five other letters!”

Last year, in a November issue of the magazine Science, a Ph.D. candidate in cancer biology, Brittany Forte, wrote an article called, “Finding Peace with Pencil.” She described her journey from being a 14-year-old who wrote, in ink, of her plans to become a pharmacist. But then things changed. She noted the unsettled awareness she felt upon re-reading those plans when she was senior in high school. And the changes continued.  She wrote, “I filled out my most recent career development plan in pencil, smudged it by erasing and changing entries, and left a number of entries blank… To be entirely honest, not knowing what my future holds is a little uncomfortable. It is hard to give up knowing – or thinking I know – exactly what I want to do and how I will get there. But I’m grateful to have room to grow and develop in unexpected directions. 

So my new mantra is, ‘Be flexible, embrace change and uncertainty – and always write in pencil.’”

Reasonable advice, I believe; to be open to new information and altered trajectories. Yet, I also believe a few things remain constant. St. Paul would tell us that faith, hope and love abide, these three things. Our relationships with one another continue to provide us with purpose and meaning. So we look back in grateful, loving remembrance and look forward with hope and faith – pressing ahead to the upward call of the future, knowing the Living Presence is already awaiting us there.

The author and renewer of the church, C.S. Lewis, observed, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” He’s right!

In that spirit, may we press onward, dreaming our dreams, writing our goals in pencil, and changing our plans with grace, as life instructs us. Let us proceed; blessings to you!

Editor’s Note: The Rev. Dr. Jim Fruehling has served at Mosaic in numerous capacities for more than four decades. A pioneer in the fields of psychology, spirituality and disability, Fruehling has empowered people with disabilities, their staff and the church to see all God’s people as fearfully and wonderfully made.

Fruehling spent more than 30 years as a licensed psychologist. At the age of 60, he entered into seminary and was ordained by the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Affectionately known as Dr. Jim or Pastor Jim, Fruehling has a bachelor’s degree from Hastings College, a master’s degree and Ph. D from the University of Nebraska, and a master’s of divinity from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

He is the grandson of one of Mosaic’s founders, The Rev. William Fruehling.

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