Denver Bar Association
March 2005
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Quality of Life? What About Having A Life?

by Sharon D. Nelson

Ways to Find Balance Amidst the Furious Pace

It spins ever faster, does it not? Much like the infamous merry-go-round in Alfred Hitchcock’s "Strangers on a Train" — and with the same sense of mania and frenzy.

To bastardize one of Tolstoy’s famous lines, each of us is unhappily juggling balls in our own way. It really doesn’t matter what the balls consist of — we all have too many of them in the air and keeping them all up there (well, perhaps dropping as few as possible) is a daunting and daily exercise.

What we do for living is intense. Our stakes are high and the consequences of our errors profound. According to a Johns Hopkins study, lawyers are considerably more affected by drug and alcohol problems than the public at large — and three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from depression. The statistics themselves are depressing!

Even when we think we’re coping, most of us admit to feeling stressed and torn between too many responsibilities. Wherever there are lawyers gathered, they bemoan their hectic schedules and the unrelentingly furious pace of their lives. Every time you hear someone talk about "quality of life" issues, do you want to put your fist through a pane of glass? Do you think to yourself: It would be nice to simply have a life, never mind its quality?

Recently, I spoke to a number of members of our Bar’s Young Lawyer Section. Family obligations and long hours at the office conspire against them to deprive them of time to engage in social activities with their colleagues and some of the philanthropic activities that many of them took part in regularly until they graduated from law school, went to work and had families. Several of them asked, "How do you balance everything?" — as though I might have some sage answer. Hah!

Would that there were a canned answer and a cure for what troubles them. Unfortunately, this is real life, not Dr. Phil. But their question stayed with me all the same, and I reflected on what the merciless juggernaut of life had taught me over the years. For what it is worth (two cents might be overpayment), here are some hard-won lessons:

1. You’ll never do anything more important or rewarding than raising kids. It’s the hardest, best job there is, even when it drives you crazy. I wouldn’t give up a single PTA meeting, excruciatingly bad band concert, soccer games in the rain and cold, or any of the basketball games in those hot, reeking-of-sweat gyms. I don’t regret transporting the girls and their hordes of friends to endless practices and games in a beat-up van cluttered with sports equipment and remnants of too many visits to McDonald’s. They really are "the times of your life," though you may or may not know it when living through them — life is just so busy. Cherish them above all things, for those times will remain with you long after your children have left home. You won’t necessarily want them back, but you will savor the memories!

2. Find time for yourself, wherever you have to carve it from. For me, I read at night when my husband is sound asleep; he’s happy and I’m happy. Of all the things I love to do for myself, I love reading most of all, and there is simply no other time. Sleep is far less important. Find time for yourself doing what you love to do and protect it religiously.

3. Find time for your spouse/partner/significant other. Because our workdays stretch from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and frequently beyond, we have established an almost inviolable rule that there is no working after dinner. Instead, we generally watch a movie together, until one of us falls asleep, making watching most movies a three-night exercise. It doesn’t really matter — we’re together, and that time is special. On weekends, we try to reserve pre-prandial "cribbage time," a ritual replete with amiably hurled insults and challenges — and a "mommy martini," which may refer to the fact that mommy is drinking it or to the generous size of the libation my devoted bartender has prepared. Rituals of togetherness are important — if two people live together without being together, they may not be together long. Whatever your own mutual pleasures are, make some time for them sacrosanct.

4. Give back to your community and colleagues. No matter how frenzied your life, nothing will give it meaning as much as helping those in need. Long ago, I recall hearing a story of a therapist of the 1900s treating a severely depressed man who simply didn’t know if he could go on. The therapist told his patient to go to the train station and to find an individual who was clearly down-and-out and work on helping that individual with his life. The patient took the advice and several months later, reported himself cured and once again actively engaged in life. There are so many people in need of help that there is a world of volunteer opportunities for all of us — our churches, schools, and communities all have places for willing hands and hearts.

5. Get unwired. Peculiar advice from a lawyer/technologist? A few years ago, such advice might have seemed silly, but no more. Now, I refuse to give my cell phone number to anyone outside work and my family, because clients would simply never leave me alone. There’s a phone at work, I check my e-mail several times daily, and there’s a pager for emergencies. Barring exigent circumstances, I don’t check my e-mail after work. You know what? It will all be there in the morning. Though I love electronic communication and the manifold opportunities of the Internet, I control my technology — it does not control my life. Well, that’s mostly true. These days, it seems as if too many of us are shackled to the machines that are supposed to help us; imprisoned by the notion that we need to be constantly accessible. Draw the lines and keep your private life private — that alone will make your life more tranquil.

6. Take time off. It doesn’t matter whether you can afford to take time off. You really can’t afford not to. Time off does not constitute "giving your laptop a view." Unplug and unwind. Whether you enjoy the steel drums of the Caribbean poolside or want to hike the whole Appalachian Trail, cut the professional cord completely. The entire disaster will await you on your return, but you will hopefully be replenished, refreshed and re-energized.

7. Have a pet, or two, or three. Personally, I like dogs, but the choice is yours. Dogs are pure love encased in fur. They don’t care what you look like, how scruffy your clothes are, or if you are grumpy in the morning. You are the center of their universe and all they want is to love you. Belle and Josie, our black labs, are my constant shadows. There’s no way to repay the love of these faithful creatures who want nothing more than to be beside you and love you — and there is a world of Zen tranquility in their undemanding companionship.

8. Remember that all things pass. The trial that seems like the end of the world will be over, one way or another. The kids will get over the flu. The car that sucks money like a vacuum cleaner can be traded in. Just like Annie said, "The sun will come out tomorrow."

9. Be gentle. In spite of the "road warriors" that make commuting a challenge and frazzle your already frayed nerves. In spite of your secretary forgetting to notify your most important client about a court date. In spite of your children’s dramatic and vocal rebellion in the face of your guidance and rules. Lawyers are often regarded as having the people skills of an enraged porcupine. Anger will shorten your life and make those around you miserable. Smiles will lengthen it and make those around you happy to be around you. Create a balmy
climate — you’ll enjoy it yourself.

10. Forgive yourself. We all screw up. We say dumb, insensitive, and rude things. We foul up at work and at home. We are grouchy or unkind or insensitive. That was yesterday. Let it go. Resolve to be better tomorrow — and then — be better tomorrow. And while you’re at it, do the right thing and "forgive those who have trespassed against you." Few things are quite as redeeming and gratifying as forgiveness.

11. Put things in perspective. As Shakespeare knew full well, we are "merely players who strut and fret our hour upon the stage." In twenty years, it will matter how you’ve raised your kids, and the outcome of your trial will be long forgotten. Would you rather have amassed a fleet of luxury cars and expensive homes or have the respect and affection of your friends, neighbors and colleagues? In the hurly burly of daily life, it is easy to forget that we have a lifetime to become our best possible selves if we can only keep from chasing the temptresses of wealth, fame, and status that vanish like mirages as we come to the end of our lives.

12. Keep some stardust in your pocket. As busy as we are, it’s no wonder that we let the magic that surrounds us daily elude us. Childlike wonder can be a major part of coping skills. I can be in mid-conversation and be struck dumb by the beauty of a rainbow. I clap my hands in sheer delight when one of our children unexpectedly shows up for dinner. And Christmas,
do I love Christmas. There are snowmen, reindeer, and elves everywhere in our home. On a recent visit, my daughter Sara announced good-naturedly, "It looks like a Christmas store threw up in here." Obviously, we need to get Sara some stardust for Christmas! Whatever delights you, take time to savor it. There is magic all around us, all the time, if we will only slow our pace long enough to enjoy it.

If there were a panacea for the pace of modern life, we’d all partake of it. Perhaps the best we can do is look for some of the things that might help, as indeed some of the suggestions above have helped me over the years. So, for the young lawyers who asked me, the above is the best I have to offer you. The flat-out running approach to life simply doesn’t seem to work, as the Pennsylvania Dutch attested to with their famous epithet: "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get."

Relax and enjoy. In spite of everything, it’s a beautiful world.

The author is the President of the Fairfax Bar Association in Virginia and President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a computer forensics and legal technology firm based in Fairfax, VA. Contact her at (703) 359-0700 or snelson@senseient.com.


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