This office has decided to terminate your employment, effective immediately. Sent by email. At 5:39pm. On a Friday. I was already out for early dinner with a friend so I received this about midnight when I got home, drunk. I just closed the laptop and stumbled to bed. At some point in the wee hours of the morning my eyes popped open and I sat straight up in bed. “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I shouted.
Although I knew I wanted to go to law school, it took a couple years after I graduated college for the timing to be right. In the meantime, I decided, to focus on getting a job as a legal assistant. I had never known any lawyers and, but for the kind of lawyers I saw on crime shows, knew very little about what the possibilities were in the legal field. I was thrilled when I got a call from a small firm in Virginia. I was ready for a move, the firm agreed to my meager salary request and even offered to throw in a couple hundred bucks for moving expenses. I just knew this was it for me. The turning point I needed. The start of the rest of my life.
Not so fast.
Looking back, this was absolutely the wrong job for me at any point in my life. The nature of the work, the culture in the firm, it was just the worst. I graduated magna cum laude with a double major three and a half years after graduating high school. Still, during my interview my would-be boss asked me if I’d ever attended school anywhere he might have heard of. It was only when I mentioned starting college at West Point that he seemed to perk up. Day 1 of the new job, the boss asks me to come into his office and then tells me there is one rule in this office: when he shouts, I come. There were five employees in the whole firm, one was his son (who was my age), one was his best friend, and everyone but the son was female. I was instructed to call everyone Attorney and Ms. and Mr. So-and-So but they all called me and each other by first name. I once got pulled aside to have a conference about my stapling. It was just weird. Worse than weird, my misogynist boss would say borderline, if not fully racist and classist things. I still regret not having enough self respect to quit, but remember, I didn’t know any lawyers so I just thought this was how it was everywhere. It just made that stupid quitting time email a bigger slap in the face.
This was a very difficult time in my personal life. I was a mess to be sure. I was trying to hold it together but not doing a great job of it. It was one of those “when it rains it pours” kind of times in life, and it was only with the benefit of hindsight that I saw I was making a lot of choices that perpetuated what I perceived to be bad luck. I never got an explanation for my termination. During the process of filing for unemployment the investigation revealed a claim of unauthorized use of the internet which was deemed unfounded. And, of course, at-will employment meant it didn’t matter the reason. It is entirely possible they just didn’t like me. As much as I could rationalize how much better off I’d be not working at this place I obsessed about getting fired. I thought about how I could stick it to my boss and his stuck up, Junior League associate who was his mouthpiece for the dirty work. Five years later when I won a professional award for being an Up & Coming Lawyer I thought seriously about mailing him a copy of the article. There was some allure about the satisfaction of revenge. The image of a giant two-fingered fuck you to this jerk of a man brought a smile to my face. See, it was a mistake for you to fire me. This article proves it.
Christmas marks the end of Advent and the end of my four part series reflecting on the weekly principles of Advent. See my previous posts here:
Like the other three principles (hope, love, and joy) it is so easy to use peace superficially. Think of “Miss Congeniality”:
When I attended church growing up there was always time in the service to pass the peace. You would shake hands with the people around you and say “peace be with you.” It was so awkward. People seemed to want it over as soon as possible. No one was really extending heart felt wishes for peace. It was just going through the motions. It’s too bad. Wishing peace for someone may be one of the most compassionate gifts we can give to others.
“Anatomy of Peace” is a book authored by the Arbinger Institute. I read it after a drug court participant described it as “life changing.” The storyline is corny but is an effective way to get across the lessons. The book argues that the way we treat others in conflict whether in day-to-day interactions in our own lives or the way countries treat each other in war is a reflection of ourselves. Behavior that is destructive comes from thoughts that are destructive and usually the root of the bad thoughts about others is actually negative beliefs about ourself. We then build walls of justifications around our bad behavior so we can rationalize our beliefs and actions. “…when I betray myself, others’ faults become immediately inflated in my heart and mind. I begin to ‘horribilize’ others. That is, I begin to make them out to be worse than they really are. And I do this because the worse they are, the more justified I feel.”
Chicken or egg. Harm done to me or harm I cause myself. Who knows which is first. “As painful as it is to receive contempt from another, it is more debilitating by far to be filled with contempt for another.”
Children raised in households with alcoholics often live in a hypervigilent state and have profound fight or flight instincts. One article gives the top ten commonalities found in adults raised in households where alcoholism was present:
- They are more concerned with others than themselves.
- They have difficulty following a project through.
- They exhibit black and white thinking.
- They have difficulty having fun.
- They judge themselves harshly.
- They constantly seek approval.
- They feel different from others.
- They ‘love’ those who need rescuing.
- They feel guilty standing up for themselves.
- They are extremely loyal.
The majority of these characteristics describe my default personality, some I’ve overcome more than others. These defaults are ever-present for me. When criticism and judgement, extremely high standards, and overall rigidity gets directed at others it becomes a huge barrier to interpersonal relationships. But it’s not so easy to just flip a switch and change it. Everything I’ve ever achieved in life has been the result of fight, fight, fight.
In yoga and in Shambhala instructors often talk about softening. The idea of physically letting go of tension in our bodies that holds us back. Emptying the mind of distracting thoughts, coming back to the simplicity and nowness of our breath helps to relax the muscles, slow the heart rate, and ease tension. Softening is a foreign concept to me. The most difficult yoga poses for me are the heart openers. Relaxing the shoulders, opening up the arms, letting go of the stomach, pressing the heart out and up. I want to keep working at this. Softening the body. Softening the mind. Remembering that peace with others begins with peace in me. Sometimes the fight just isn’t worth it.
For years my New Years goals have included some form of chilling out. Peace, acceptance, letting go, softening. It’s the hardest because in addition to self-love, cultivating joy from within, allowing oneself to dream and be hopeful…all of the lofty ideals that conscientious people spend a lifetime striving for… it also encompasses all the things you’re not proud of. Failure, falling short, letting people down, not reaching that goal, not being the person you thought you were. It can be the thing you fight with your whole life. What this year has shown me is that my default characteristics aren’t just a barrier to interpersonal relationships, but my intrapersonal relationship. The projection outward is the reflection of the lingering internal tension. So, there is still work to do.
When we were in Washington D.C. this Fall, we walked around the National Mall at night to see the monuments. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s was very impactful. Standing in the darkness staring at the carved granite, I could see and touch the words that become anchors for who I want to be. Justice. Dignity. Humanity. And…
It’s time to find that within so that in every interaction with others I can truly pass the peace.
“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.