I’ve been practicing law and concentrating on family law for over 27 years. To be honest, I sometimes grow weary of writing about technical subject matter. I also notice that the blogs I write that have some personal connection get far more interactions than when I explain the nuances of financial issues in divorce, for example.
There are so many professional blogs about industry subject matter that it can become like background noise we look at in our feeds for a second or two and go on with our obligatory daily reviews of email, social media, and so forth. But what appears to really grab a reader’s attention are articles of human interest. Sure, we are great professionals but we’re all humans first. So, here is my human interest pensée.
Recently, I attended a local chapter meeting of a national professional networking group that I’ve been a member of for 10 years, ProVisors. I was a guest at this particular chapter meeting, and the host had an “icebreaker” question for anyone who was introduced to the group or spoke during the meeting. The question was a Mother’s Day-themed question: What is the most important character trait you got from your mother? I thought about that while others who were introduced before me answered that question.
My initial response was going to be my cooking skills. But that’s a skill, not a character trait.
I thought about my nuclear family history to introspect on the trait that my mother passed on to me. Not a trait because that wasn’t the call of the question. The question wanted us to identify the trait. The best one.
Not a simple exercise when you think about it. So, I reflected.
My mother was born in and grew up in The Bronx during the 1930s and 40s. She and my father were pen-pals when he was stationed in Greenland in the Air Force circa 1949. They met once or twice when my father’s service was extended by a year because of the outbreak of the Korean War when he was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California.
At some point along the way, my parents fell in love and thought it would be a good idea for my father to go AWOL and for them to elope. So, they did. My mother’s first engagement ring cost 50 cents and their initial marriage ceremony occurred somewhere in Nevada during their cross-country trek from New York to California. Rest assured, there’s a lot more to that story.
My eldest brother was born in the hospital at Travis AFB alongside wounded Korean War veterans. My father was discharged in 1951 and my mother and father drove cross-country again, to live with my paternal grandmother in Revere, Massachusetts. There was a housing shortage at that time and Veteran’s Housing units (what we called “the projects”) weren’t ready for occupancy just yet. Eventually, my parents had two more children, including me, the youngest of three boys. We lived in the projects until I was five years old when my father bought my grandmother’s house after she died at a 1/5th discount. He was one of five children who inherited the house, which was the sum and substance of my Nanna’s estate. She was an Italian immigrant with a sixth-grade education who raised five children as a single parent. My mother’s parents were a truck driver and what was then known as a housewife. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. Both earned their high school equivalency certifications.
My parents literally started their life together with nothing. My father hadn’t even lined up off-base housing when he married my mother. Their first home was arranged by Air Force Major Platt who requisitioned for them kitchenware, sheets, and blankets stamped “U.S.” Again, there’s a lot more to this story, but you get the point.
Despite the challenges she faced, and despite her own human frailties, my mother never instilled in me a sense that I could not achieve whatever it was that I set my mind to. And, in reflecting on my family’s history—my history—I stumbled upon that trait that above any other defines my character and for which I credit my mother (really, from both of my parents).
I don’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.”
After I spoke and shared that character trait other people shared their stories. Several members of the group related stories with challenges far greater than those my parents faced. One member survived Communism, civil war, and refugee status to become the successful professional she is today. Just, wow!
I guess the point of writing this is to convey the sentiment that we can and do sabotage our own ability to overcome life’s challenges and achieve personal success, to victimize ourselves when we really think about it. I see this in my family law practice often. Self-sabotage stoked by fear (and sometimes self-pity, if I am telling the whole story).
As to overcoming adversity, I offer the words from the title of this blog from Benjamin Hoff’s sequel to The Tao of Pooh, which is The Te of Piglet. Hoff does an outstanding job of demystifying the tenets of Taoism in these books through the lessons and experiences of A.A. Milne’s inhabitants of the 100 Acre Wood. I recommend these books enthusiastically. Piglet, you see, is a very small animal and so he finds it very hard to be brave. But he understands that “[w]ithout difficulties, life would be like a stream without rocks and curves—about as interesting as concrete. Without problems, there can be no personal growth, no group achievement, no progress for humanity. But what matters about problems is what one does with them. Eeyores don’t overcome problems. No, it’s the other way around.”[i]
So, in the end, my message is simple. In our contemporary society, so chock full of Eeyores, choose to be a Piglet or a Pooh, who don’t understand the meaning of the word “can’t.”
[i] Benjamin Hoff, The Te of Piglet, Dutton Books (1992)