Leaving Behind a Life that Doesn’t Work

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Psychologist, James Hollis, describes depression as a “swampland”; a place that’s murky and dark where we’d rather not go.  He doesn’t underestimate the power of the physical dimension of depression; the chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating and disrupted sleep.  Nor does he dismiss the notion that depression, for some people, has a genetic basis.  But what he suggests, which is different than your standard psychological tome on the topic, is that depression can be the result of our psyche, or “true self” if you will, trying to assert itself.  We are depressed, he opines, because we are essentially living a life we don’t want and didn’t consciously choose.  We are living out a script created for us by our parents and societal expectations to be successful, accomplished and respected in a way that’s not in accord with our real needs and desires.

At some, the psyche protests; it tells the guys upstairs running the ego’s show, “We’ve had enough! We’re staging a work stoppage!”  And so the psyche withdraws large amounts of energy from the false life we’ve been trying to construct and live out of.  We try harder during a depression to compensate by swimming even harder in the habits we know best:  exerting more effort, distractions or maybe even addictions.  But, the psyche won’t budge.  It wants to take us in another direction; it wants us to pay attention to our own inner compass and turn in that direction.  In doing so we are enlivened and a depression may lift – – maybe.   It seems like the true self doesn’t give a damn about all of  our “career objectives” and false gods.  That’s not its objective and it demands to be heard.

In my own life, this most certainly played out in my decision to become a lawyer.  As I have previously written, my dad was an unrepentant alcoholic who abused me, my siblings and my Mom.  Yet, early in his life, he was a hero in many regards: captain of his football team, a sailor in the Pacific theater during WWII and a graduate of the University at Denver.  But somewhere along the way, as he aged and had more children, the wheels fell off.  This would have large ramifications in my own life.

I became the hero of my family in a way that my dad never managed to achieve in his adult life.  I played sports, was a “good kid”, earned great grades in college, and went to law school.  Like many people who do well in undergraduate school, I didn’t know what to do with my marshmallow degree in psychology.  So, true hero that I was, I went to law school.  I must admit that I didn’t like it very much even though I did well.  Its emphasis on rules and analysis, too often to the exclusion of the human journey, sometimes bored me silly.  I would often wander off to the undergraduate library and read great works of literature while my orphaned law books sat at the edge of my desk.  “Pick me up,” they pleaded.  I turned a deaf ear and went back to my novel.

One evening, towards the end of my first year, I went to dinner with my Mom and older brother. I began pouring my heart out to her that I wasn’t happy in law school. 

My mom listened half-heartedly.  Her eyes began looking around the restaurant to avoid my gaze.  “Have they changed the wallpaper in here,” she managed in a sing-song voice.  I persisted:  “Mom, I really need your help.  I need you to hear me.”  My brother, who had been sitting quietly next to me, got annoyed:  “Stop, bothering mom; you’re upsetting her!”  So I stopped.  I learned that whatever I was planning to do about law school, dropping out wasn’t an alternative.  As the hero, being lost – or worse yet, a failure – was simply unacceptable.  I never listened to what my psyche was trying to tell me.  That choice would come back to bite me later in life as one of the causes of my depression.

I can now see the unrealistic expectations that my parents unintentionally laid on me.  Somehow a “successful” son would make up for all the brokenness in their own lives. It would somehow redeem the pain that our home had harbored for so long.

Now, after years of struggle, I realize I have choices.  I don’t have to unconsciously live out my parents unlived lives.  I can forgive them and move on.  I now choose to be a lawyer, but on my own terms.  With that comes responsibility.  No one is going to make healthy choices for me.  My depression certainly caused a “work stoppage in my life.”  It isn’t something I would have ever consciously have chosen – who would have?  But I used the experience to go back to the drawing board of my life to figure out what I really wanted out of life.  I didn’t want to continue to be stuck in the muck of depression so I had to change.  I had to build a life that worked for me.  

And that’s still a work in progress . . . .

The Ladder of Success

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Many lawyers are consumed with the goal of becoming successful.  Often, traditional success means money, status and power.  According to veteran lawyer George W. Kaufman, author of the book, The Lawyers’ Guide to Balancing Life and Work, “For too many lawyers, the goal of success becomes the primary driver.  But surveys of working lawyers tell us that a great many of them are unhappy even when their planned goals are realized . . .”  This view was echoed by therapist, Alden Cass in an article on burnout in New York Magazine titled, Can’t Get No Satisfaction.  Cass, who treats Wall Street lawyers in New York City, says, “I can’t tell you how many people come into my office and ask, “How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?”

Most lawyers are never taught about the problems and pitfalls of pursuing success without also combining it with the pursuit of meaning and purpose.  My parent’s only imperatives were that I go to college, get a good job and “be happy.”  I worked long hours, endured constant stress and moved up my old firm’s pecking order.  But somewhere along the way, I realized that something was terribly wrong with my life.  I wasn’t just unhappy; I was full of sorrow.  The great mythologist, professor and author, Joseph Campbell captured the irony of our common struggle for success: “You climb the ladder of success and when you get to the top you find it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” 

I fell off that ladder and into a well of depression.

I was never taught how to navigate the waters of difficult emotions.  When I looked around at my fellow lawyers, they all seemed so together — like a show room car that never got dented and was always polished.

Through my depression, I learned a lot about the darkness.  That it isn’t exactly an illness, but part of the human journey for all of us.  Educator and author, Parker Palmer, who went through and struggled with depression, wrote:

“Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.  When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known.  As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure.  I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race”.  Listen to a great podcast where Parker is interviewed for a show called, The Soul of Depression.

So much of the literature out there about success focuses on “work-life” balance.  The formula in many of these tomes is the same:  set limits, exercise and make time for family.  All of these are well and good, but seem to so often fail us.  There’s simply not enough gravity in them to keep us in orbit.  What’s lacking is a basic  truth:  Life is made up of struggles and losses and how we deal with them.  Such struggles can reach a crisis pitch in which we enter a sort of darkness.

In his book, Dark Night of the Soul:  A Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals, psychologist, Thomas Moore says: 

“A dark night may not feel like depression.  In a long illness or a troubled marriage you may be anxious, but not depressed.  On the other hand, a clinical depression might well qualify as a dark night.  Whatever you call it, the experience involves you as a person, someone with a history, a temperament, memories, emotions, and ideas.  Depression is a label and a syndrome, while the dark night is a meaningful event.  Depression is a psychological sickness; a dark night is a spiritual trial.

Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy.  But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of the problems.  Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life.  That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life.  They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having.  A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to the living.  It pares life down to its essentials and helps you to get a new start”.

And maybe that’s what we all need – a new start.  To wake up to a new vision about what success really means to us and how we need to act in our lives as lawyers to meet that meaning.

I remember the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success.  It’s worth mentioning that a book published in 2007, Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,  says that Mother Teresa felt deep sorrow, despair and one could argue “depression” for the last fifty years of her life.  Yet, in the most profound sense –whether you are religious or not — wasn’t she a success?  She once said, “We are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful.”   In other words, we can’t control the outcomes.  But, we can live a life that is directed by our spirits.  And THAT is a life of success.

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