When I Was Wool
“We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth . We could swear they are real.”
— The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruíz
In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruíz, believing that all suffering arises from self-inflicted wounds, counsels readers to engender the conditions for a life of less hardship. The “agreements” are sage principles derived from traditional Toltec erudition, itself sourced from centuries-old reflection and experiential learning. “Don’t Make Assumptions,” the third agreement, adjures the reader to avoid drawing conclusions predicated solely on one’s own thoughts. The heart of this advice is that, when living in relation to others, one cannot fully understand that coexistence alone; we require information from others in order to live together in balance. Consequently, when we make determinations without receiving input from those with whom we are in relationships, we generate misunderstandings, disharmony and suffering.
Many of us fear what is unknown to us, and we take action rooted in that fear. We become firmly entrenched in our opinions, willing to gain the battle with the consequence of losing the war. We see trees yet fail to observe that they are part of the forest. Intractable and unbearable, we take hasty steps in the wrong direction, and alienate our human compasses, all because we will not engage another’s perspective.
In 2013 I began living my second experience with unemployment. The first occurred during my early twenties; I felt more resilient then. This second experience was vastly different. I was thirty-seven, and was eight years into my career as an attorney. The job I lost was, at the time, my dream job. I had been working as a criminal defense attorney and civil litigant, the job I thought I wanted when I graduated law school. Six years passed before I found what felt like the perfect fit. This litigation and criminal defense practice was a boutique firm owned and operated by an attorney with an outsized personality. (He would later become nationally famous, but for all the wrong reasons.) One of the paralegals was his wife, and the office manager his brother. Eleven months into my time there, the brother was brutally murdered over a holiday weekend. The police suggested that it might have been one of our clients. My dream job turned dark, and I could not see my way out of it.
I wanted to appear strong so I asked my boss, who was obviously grieving, a few questions about the circumstances surrounding the murder, and then set about the task of being the tree planted by the water: immoveable and firmly rooted in my dual role of associate attorney and emotional support. I never asked my boss if he needed me in either capacity; I assumed he did. As such, I was surprised when nearly eight months after the murder, I was dismissed for loss of focus and for appearing generally disengaged. I was both. But, more than these feelings, I had been traumatized and felt left in the dark, for eight months.
In fact, following the incident, I spent the first six months looking over my shoulder, walking my friends to their cars, scrutinizing every questionable vehicle that slowly passed the office as I walked in and out of it. I paid careful attention to every client at whose hearing I appeared –working to establish a bond with them– and even surveyed the crowd of accused defendants waiting for their case to be called at these probable cause hearings. There I stood, next to local law enforcement, and never once asked what they understood about the murder and its relatedness to our firm. I never asked if my name had come up, how safe I could feel returning to and leaving the office day in and day out. I was afraid to leave the impression that I was scared and unmanly. Even still, in my mind, any one of the people in those court rooms might have been motivated to cause the harm that unsettled me. That, at least, was what was initially reported: perhaps it was a client of the firm’s or related to the firm’s practice. I asked nothing of no one, and gave all that I had. I did lose interest. My passion for the job had been extinguished by the AK-47 that violently ended my co-worker’s life. My knees shook unnoticeably, and I moved unsteadily forward, obscuring my doubts.
Eventually, I regained a semblance of my composure and carried on with my duties. I even began to find a rhythm with my work and comfort in the assumption that if I had been one of the targets, the threat would have manifested itself. It had not. I did finally ask if there was a suspect, and there was, but did not ask if there were theories about the motive. I assumed my boss was actively grieving, and did not have the space to accommodate my insecurities. In April of 2013, he fired me, writing in his letter that I had not been focused on my work and had lost my passion for the job. Indeed.
By June, I was living in Miami and hoping to start over. I had been too embarrassed by the dismissal to ask for help connecting with people who might employ me, and applied for nearly one hundred jobs on my own, through online job portals, where each application required nearly an hour’s time to complete. My dark days felt midnight black, and though my legs were steadier, they could hardly bear the weight of my burdened heart. Even with this, I did not seek perspective from any of my friends. I did not reach out to placement agencies to ask, “How do I deal with having been separated from my job? Where should I apply, and how do I approach the application process?” I leaned on my own understanding, and nearly fell into the sense of nothingness that was there. One day, while out on a walk and lamenting my fortunes, storm clouds moved overhead and poured down rain! The rain must have permeated through to my bones because I felt heavier.
I was wool, soaked through by the heavy rains of disillusionment, laden and shrinking into myself, with the must of my dour attitude pervading outward into all that I touched. I had not created the condition for my unemployment alone, but had created the suffering surrounding my unemployment through how I chose to respond to it.
Help arrived through a call from Special Counsel, a hiring agency for document review work in eDiscovery. I could not recall having applied for the work, but as it turns out, an errant online job application had gone right; one out of nearly one hundred! And, I was destined for the work because I took to it and enjoyed it almost immediately, although there was an adjustment period. I would later learn that, if I had reached out to a placement agency sooner, they would have steered me in the direction of document review to earn money while I found my bearings.
I assumed my second bout with unemployment had come at the invitation of my poor performance, but it had not. Rather, it was a consequence of not having asked enough questions: To my former boss, “Do you still need me because I no longer feel safe here?” To myself, “Is this still your dream?”