Matthew Cohen, MSW

Matthew Cohen, MSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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How the Hobbit Made Me A Social Worker

I can picture the bookshelf in the middle school library to this day; the broken green spine staring at me. The title, “The Hobbit”. It was one of those moments, looking back I was positive that the course of my life changed that day. I am not exaggerating, I have had such moments since, I know how they feel.

Life was not so easy for me then, I had a hard time fitting in, a hard time relating to the other kids. They were a mystery and I was very lonely I suppose. I devoured that book, starving for something I had yet to understand. It was so easy to become absorbed in that book, as if I were truly in another place as I read it. I found adventures full of magic and dragons. I found characters I could relate to, and those I did not understand at all. This is pretty much the time I decided I wanted to be a wizard, some things never change! I would go on to to read the Lord of the Rings, and just about every major work of science fiction and fantasy I could get my hands on. This period of my life lasted well into my late 20’s. There is hardly anything I love more then those books and the joy of reading them.

Last night I saw the “Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, in gorgeous 48 Frames Per Second 3D, it was stunning. The visions of my youth had come to life in a way that I could have never expected, and still have a hard time believing. The movie had read poor reviews, but I held out hope. As I sat there watching ( I loved the movie) it occurred to me why the movie would get bad reviews, and of equal importance, where the roots of my desire to become a social worker came from.

The movie took tremendous liberties, for a purist it might very well have been a disappointing experience. There is a bi-fold reasoning here. First, there is no way for a movie to have the epic feel of a book. It lasts for 3 hours at most where a book transports you for weeks and months. If a person travels inside the book like I do, 3 hours just is not long enough to be swept away. Secondly, it is very easy to mistake the literal story for the metaphor on which it is built. If a person’s standard is on the literal interpretation of their “bible”, the movie could never live up to those expectations.

Yet, as I look to the metaphor, the lessons on humanity, as my standard, I found a deeper understanding of why this book had such a profound effect on me. “The Hobbit” is filled with lessons on friendship, perseverance, patience, doubt, faith, and especially compassion. So often in fiction good and evil are polar opposites, “The Hobbit” reminds us that there are shades of grey. It teaches questioning beliefs about oneself  and remaining patient in the face of the unknown future. Especially with the character Gollum, it hammers home the message that the cause and conditions for a beings actions matter in their entirety ; narrow interpretation of actions and intentions do not allow us to see the whole person(Hobbit). At the core of the Hobbit is empathy, it was my first lesson on the subject.

Given that, is it so surprising I became a social worker? Who has not worked with the angry child who was abandoned, the murder who was looked in a closet or beaten. From my experience, in almost every instance, after hearing a persons story, whether or not I was happy about the things they had done, I understood how it came about. It is easy to paint difficult populations with the evil or undesirable brush, but social workers have no such luxury. To the best of our ability we must treat every client with empathy, and if we can’t, we need to let a supervisor know. Our job is to understand the lessons hidden neatly away in “The Hobbit”.

A friend reminded me that Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” in a ditch in World War II. Our greatest social commentaries need not be non-fiction or historical works, they can be cleverly tucked away in the places that powerful people cannot touch. Mr. Tolkien’s great insight might very well have been that it is better to deliver this message to young, knowing that it is better that they do not notice until they get older.  In this way, it takes root deep down in places we do not have to question, because we know it feels right.  Us psychological types always wonder about resiliency  and there is no question that these stories can offer a child that very skill.

“The Hobbit” and countless other works have done so for me. As I reread them as an adult, the messages are clear and I find myself reflecting, “Oh, that is where that came from”, dumbfounded. Our stories are of such importance because they can portray the world we aspire to without getting into the argument about whether or not it is possible. That is the heart of the social worker, aspiring for a better world whether or not it is possible. My first lesson in social work was from “The Hobbit”, and I am happy to say that people are no longer a mystery to me.


Some other works of fiction that are amazing! Please add your own!

Ender’s Game

Game of Thrones ( The books are even better)


The Wheel of Time

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  1. Courtney Kidd LMSW December 21, 2012
  2. 97socialworker December 21, 2012

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