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Got Everything Done, Died Anyway

So might the epitaph of many of us read.  Or, “Tried to get everything done, didn’t and died anyway.” Are we just trying to get through the day and check one more thing off our list?  Are in fact our lives just a series of tasks?  Are we just waiting to get some unseen list completed, so life can begin?  We are well trained to live in the future.  Right now my eleventh grade son is just waiting to get out of high school  to get to college.  And I remember when I couldn’t wait to get out of college, and then I couldn’t wait to get out of law school.  At a meeting today I heard one lawyer say he just couldn’t do anything (but work) until March.  The truth is that we can never live in the future, only the present.  As the old saw puts it, life is what happens while you are getting ready for it to begin.

Just as much of a problem as living only in a state of expectation for the future is living in the past.  There are several ways to live in the past.  One is by attachment to regret, blame and loss.  We make mistakes, we miss opportunities. And most of all we have losses.  If we do not deal with these normal but difficult life events, they can alter how we experience life.  If we do not grieve our losses, our present is always colored by what happened perhaps years before.  If we do not make matters right with persons we have harmed, then we are never really able to enjoy a full relationship with them (and perhaps others like them) again.

Another way we live in the past is captured in the expression:  “You never get enough of what you don’t want.”  Or, “if you keep on doing the same thing you will keep on getting the same results.”  Often we live in the past by acting out of old ways of responding to life that are no longer applicable.  Perhaps you grew up in an alcoholic household and learned at an early age that to survive you needed to develop an acute sensitivity to how another person was feeling in order to avoid an alcoholic’s rages. After awhile this survival skill becomes a script for becoming dependent on the mood of another.  It is not a good script for having wholesome adult relations, especially intimate ones, but if not examined and understood it can continue to run a person’s life for years after it was formed.  One keeps going over and over again to the hardware store to get bread.

Living in the past or the future all revolve around trying to alter our emotional state in the present,  an inability to accept the circumstances of our lives that are beyond our control.   Lawyers often have difficulty experiencing their present emotional state.  Why?  Well we like to be in control.  Emotions seem chaotic, and if one is not used to fully feeling one’s emotions then to experience them is to feel out of control.  As individuals who are drawn to the law, the choice of our profession may reflect a need we have for order and certainty.  We come to our vocation with a natural inclination away from our emotional aspect.  Our emotional being is like a pair of shoes.  Until they are worn in good the experience of our emotions is going to seem at best uncomfortable and possibly down right scary.

As lawyers, many of us come to this vocation with a natural tendency away from our emotional aspect, with emotional shoes that have never been broken in.  Then we experience a significant emotional experience: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a divorce, even the loss of a major case.  Without much emotional experience the response of the psyche is to want to close down or avoid, rather than encounter, this significant emotional experience.  As lawyers we may find ourselves ill-equipped for the normal emotional challenges of life.

True enjoyment of life is an emotional experience.  Learning not to be an observer of one’s life, but an emotional participant in it can begin at any time.  We can fantasize or intellectualize about what we would like the future to be, but we can only truly be in the present emotionally. For many of us however, the impetus to discard living in the future or the past is only going to come about through some emotional crisis of loss.

Loss is with us every day.  Every time we gain something, we also give up something.  Even the loss of something we view as negative like a bad marriage is also an occasion of real grief.  Not only do we lose people from our lives and cases we are handling, but we also suffer the loss of dreams, plans and ideas.   In our speeded up technology-driven society, we have less and less time to experience our losses, to gain understanding from the experience and to grow into news ways of living that build on what we learned from our losses.   Our emotional clock runs on a more tribal, primitive time that is not linear.   Loss is not something to be fixed.  It runs counter to lawyer solutions.  Emotional experience teaches us the things you can’t learn in books,  compassion, gratitude, what it is like to stand in someone else’s shoes  in essence what it means to be a human being.

The effective handling of emotions always involves other people.  In order to be secure experiencing feelings of loss we need to trust another person with whom we can share our losses.  The kind of person we need is someone who is not going to try to fix it, rationalize why it might be good, or minimize the loss, but who can simply be with us and allow us to experience our grief.  And as we wear in our own emotional shoes we will become the kind of person who can do this for someone we care about.  It also helps to be able to participate in social rituals that acknowledge the loss.  This is what wakes and funerals are about.  Practices where we take action with others to memorialize loss, and the meaning that was present that the loss has taken away, are very important ways for the psyche to absorb loss in a healthy way.  Of course we all know the negative emotional extremes, of lawyers who run their careers on anger because of their own unaddressed emotional issues.  Or someone who still can’t get out of bed two years after the death of a loved one.  In fact it is our fear of the extremes that often pushes us away from wearing in our own emotional shoes.  But the emotional extremes are usually reflections of defective emotional growth, and not ways of being likely to be encountered by people who accept their emotional nature.

How do we know when we have not really come to terms with loss?  Loss affects us emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.   Physically loss, particularly loss that is not actively grieved, can result in stress that decreases the functioning of the immune system. Other physical symptoms of loss, particularly unprocessed loss, may include nausea, headaches and chronic tiredness.  Addictions such as alcoholism, smoking addiction, eating addiction, gambling addiction, and sex addiction can all be triggered by stress caused by loss, particularly where there is a family history of addictive illness.

Emotional responses to loss include anger, sadness, fear, and guilt.  These responses may be appropriate, however if the loss is not grieved, such emotional responses can become stuck, much like the needle caught on a record, and play over and over causing harmful physical responses like those described above.

Particularly in the early stages of significant loss, it is possible to experience significant problems in cognitive functioning — including confusion, disorientation, difficulty concentrating and memory problems.  Since the intellectual area is usually the lawyer’s strong suit, this sort of experience from loss is often very destabilizing to a lawyer.

Finally loss may be a real spiritual challenge.  It can start one on the road to questioning the meaning of life, particularly when the loss is out of natural sequence as when a child dies before a parent.  Loss can cause life to seem to be meaningless. And the opposite is true.  Through the process of grieving, a loss may not only allow a spiritual connection to be regained, but in dealing with a personal tragedy one may find a spiritual life that never existed before.  The illumination gained in realizing, that despite all the horrible things that happen in the world and man’s ongoing inhumanity to man, that this world is a pretty wondrous place to be is a mystery that is only comprehended emotionally, never just with the rational mind.

So where do you start, if you spend most of the time living in the future or the past?  Begin to wear in your emotional shoes.  Like playing tennis or learning anything, it helps to have a teacher.  This kind of teacher is called a therapist.  If you have an addiction in your life, the process of successful recovery is most often directed through the use of the twelve steps to learn how to be comfortable (without drugs, food, sex or whatever the addiction is) in your own emotional shoes.  Find a twelve-step group where you belong.

Once you have gotten a teacher or a group as teacher, find someone you can talk to authentically on a regular basis about how you feel.  Probably you won’t be able to just express feelings at first, you will have to think about how you feel to figure it out, but gradually you will strengthen your emotional muscles.

Then trade in the epitaph above, if it might have been yours.  Try one like: “Time is my ally.”  Or, the Zen koan,  “Without doing anything, let nothing be undone.”   The passage of time is one of the most present realities in all our lives.  It is not what we are waiting for, it is right now.  Once you have gotten your emotional shoes worn in, the course correction that is often needed may just be a few degrees, not a ninety degree turn.  Focus on making the small changes in your life that make you more emotionally free to be who you are each day, each hour, each minute of your life.  You will find that these kinds of changes make time your friend.

– by Don Carroll

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