Category Archives: Emotional contaigon

FEED MY SHEEP: A Pandemic Tale

Being in quarantine is difficult for everyone, but it’s particularly difficult when you are a family lawyer doing it alone. You have nobody to decompress with or hug after long hours of working on stressful cases on a computer. If you decide to go off of social media because of the tone of the rhetoric there, and you don’t have cable tv, there is even more isolation.  Days are spent triaging highly anxious family law clients and nights are spent asking yourself weighty questions.

You read an article that says you will discover who your friends really are by the ones who reach out to say “are you ok?” and realize that while you think you have many friendships, if that is the criteria, only maybe one or two of those friendships are very deep. You rarely or don’t ever hear from “friends” and maybe only one asks if you are ok.  It seems like you are the one checking in on people but other than your children nobody is checking in on you.

Most of the people that are calling you want something. Your legal expertise, your help in filing for unemployment, your take on how they can survive the pandemic, your interpretation of a custody order in light of social distancing. All the people you’ve helped, guided, loved on and taken care of over the years are preoccupied.  They assume you are strong and must be ok.  Some who you reach out to texting “I hope you are safe and doing well” don’t even take time to respond.  You remember what you’ve done to help those people over the years and wonder what it is that made them so detached they couldn’t even take a quick moment to send back a thumbs-up emoticon.

At night with a dog sleeping at your feet and the “pink moon” glaring through the window you start asking yourself big questions.

What has my life been about up until now?

  If I catch the virus and die, what is my legacy? (After all, at age 62 I am in the “endangered species” category.)

 Who and what did I let drive my life in ways that were not, in retrospect, beneficial and may have even de-railed me?

 What did I miss along the way?

 IF I live through this how will I show up differently post-pandemic?

I started seeing a terrific new therapist before the virus hit, because I was so miserable in the practice of law. He helped me see that I’d been suffering for many, many years and for the first time (because he was a former attorney himself) someone “got” the suffering I’d been feeling for years.  We began to dissect it with the intention of figuring out what I would do with my “last act” of life and how, and if, the law would a part of it.

But then the pandemic hit.

Suddenly I am faced with having this weighty reflection front and center as I navigate 10 hour days of client matters every day while trying to pay attention to what is going on with the virus, whether I have to Clorox my groceries, and whether my 84 year old mother and 60 year old brother with advanced MS are safe in their homes. What was previously a stressful job now has become even more mentally taxing.  But what I know from previous life devastation is I have to somehow navigate staying present and awake for all there is to learn.

As I ponder the “suffering in the law” question amidst all of this, I’ve come to a clear realization. It isn’t the clients, even the most demanding ones, who cause the suffering.  They are actually the bright spot.  It’s the other lawyers. It’s the value system of the practice of law. It’s the idea that more money is made by lawyers the more parties are fighting and litigating.  It’s that it’s all about winning, including thinking it’s a big victory to take a child away from a parent or to get a vocational expert to say a lifetime stay at home parent should all of a sudden be making $50,000 and therefore minimizing the amount the other parent has to pay to support their children.  It’s mentally stressful hearing sad stories in a system of deadlines and rules of engagement that make people’s life traumas the source of ego gratifying wins and competitive gamesmanship. The idea of family justice seems so bizarre and illogical.

I’ve loved my clients and loved on them for over 35 years. I’ve sat with them for hours hearing their hearts, encouraging them to find their highest selves, helping them find new footing in the new normal of their lives during and after legal interventions. I’ve had many profound experiences sitting side by side with people who were bleeding emotionally and watching their lives fall apart. As I was helping them, my clients were my own spiritual guides as I found new pieces of myself in them, and new understanding of suffering and transformation.  I’ve sometimes floated home from the office whispering to myself about what a privilege and honor it is to do such important work for my clients.

But back to the suffering as a lawyer. After confiding  to mentors and confidantes I was encouraged by one mentor about 7 years ago to write about it, and to start sharing the message of change in my profession. This is where my path might have gotten off course (but as is always the case, that diversion brought me back home).  I proceeded to spend years writing and imploring lawyers to reclaim the beauty of our profession as a healing profession. I wrote “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014. I’ve been on the speaking circuit explaining to lawyers that they needed to do things differently. I’ve spoken with passion and a sense of urgency.

Most who have heard me figuratively patted me on the head and said, “Good little Kimmy.”  They’ve dismissed my message and just keep doing things the same way. Why would they change? It’s a good gig, even if studies show a large number of lawyers feel their line of work has adversely impacted their mental health. Plus, any sense of changing to be more collaborative, loving, compassionate and kind is largely viewed as a sense of weakness, frailty, not being a “real” lawyer. And it’s no secret you end up billing fewer hours for cooperation than for combat.

I’ve given speeches at the law schools imploring faculty to offer coursework on topics like collaboration and emotional intelligence  and to place emphasis on being a “whole person” above emphasis on things like class rank. That message has gone over with a thud. Those subjects aren’t on the bar exam after all and bar passage rate is one of the components of measurement by US News and World Reports.  Yes, legal education hasn’t changed in decades and now it is held hostage by a magazine that nobody reads.  So lawyers are continually turned out in the same competitive paradigm that is part of the dysfunction of the profession.  Some studies show that incoming law students change their whole world view. When they enter law school most do so to “help people.” During the three years, law students change their goals to wanting to be the exemplar student,  to complete law school with a high class ranking to ensure a shoe-in at a lucrative job in “Big Law” and to make a name for themselves.

At night with shutters open in the light of the beautiful pink moon, laying in my bed during the quarantine, I put my hands over my heart and comfort my wounded self. What in the world were you thinking when you took on this crusade?  What in the world made you think that you could be the champion of change?  And what now?

Trying to mentor young lawyers to practice in a new way, by approaching and recruiting those who I thought could share the vision, only added more suffering.  I realize that while I thought they shared my dream and mission, for most of them, that wasn’t it at all.  It was instead that my dream and passion for the cause was contagious to them. I got them excited because I was so excited. They weren’t really excited on their own.  When the money starts coming the vision gets lost because the old way is a good gig.  Frustration, heartache, kicking myself for the time invested, the giving, giving, giving of myself to those I thought would help multiply the change. Suffering from those fractured relationships in the law that hurt worse than other personal and family heartaches.

Also, in that pink moon a ray of light through the clouds illuminated another pandemic induced realization. In my crusade I’d lost something.  The connection with my clients. Yes, it’s always there to a degree but the “mission” became paramount to the delicacy of the client’s hearts. My own mind and heart have been split in two these past years.  I’m still “feeling with” the clients but doing so while a big part of my heart has been dedicated to my agenda of legal reform. The “movement”  has permeated a big part of my body, mind and spirit that only have finite resources.  The personal satisfaction of the  legal reform mission is much less gratifying than the profound joy the work with the clients  in the trenches has given me.  If anything, “the mission” has fed my ego and made me more driven to be “seen and heard” and stolen a big chunk of my humility, stillness and center.  And then last night, a bold ray of moonlight pierced through the clouds with such brightness it was startling, and a bible verse came to the forefront.  “Feed my sheep.”

“Feed my sheep” is what Jesus said to the disciples when they were trying to convince him how much they loved him, and he was telling them how to prove it.  (John 21:15-17) That verse, at that moment, answered one of my big questions.

How will I show up in the world post pandemic?

Before the onset, I had been focused on a legacy of being an instrument of change in the legal profession.  While I know I have been making a difference in the lives of my clients, I’ve thought that individual impact was “too small” of a mission. I remember a friend who had a business with an important message, and she shared that she’d been convinced she would “reach millions.” Somehow that went into my subconscious and I thought of all the good that could be done in the world by lawyers, sitting with the most vulnerable in our society, if my message of compassion in the law would reach millions.  A few sheep surely weren’t the same caliber of importance.

Laying alone in the middle of a pandemic brings clarity about how inconsequential you are in the scheme of things at the end of the day.  And yet there it was; “Feed my sheep.”

I go to the dog park this morning shortly after sunrise like I do every pandemic day. As usual, nobody is there that early but my dog and me, and this morning I’m thinking about “feed my sheep” and asking for more clarity of what it means.

As I pull into the parking lot, NPR is interviewing Andrea Bocelli who will sing day after tomorrow at a cathedral in Milan, where there will be no audience. He says that having no audience is beautiful because to him it is not a concert, it is a prayer.  The interviewer asks his wife if it will seem odd that he won’t be in front of a packed house and she says no. She tells of how at times, on Sundays, he does church with a few people who are very sick or dying. There may be only five people bedridden and Andrea Bocelli sings just for them. She tells that it is beautiful because they all view his singing as a prayer offering for the healing of the few people that are there.

I start to sob as he proceeds to sing Ave Maria, alone in my car in full pandemic loneliness as his music feeds me, and my dog licks the tears as they come down my cheeks.

I’ve realized that each intervention with each client I meet makes a monumental impact. It’s not just me impacting them, but them impacting me. Meeting someone on the path of suffering and helping them navigate that part of their journey, is the highest calling I have on my life.

There are politicians and special interest groups clamoring for healthcare reform, change in our government, big systemic changes like I was preaching. And those things are worthy, and necessary.   Yet there is also a nurse sitting with  one person dying of the virus who can’t be near family and would be alone without that one nurse.  That moment is a crucial transformative moment for both of them.  Calling someone in quarantine to check on them when they are suffering is a huge transformative moment for both people.  Sending a thumbs up emoticon during a pandemic to someone who is reaching out to ask how you are, can trigger a transformative reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has dropped bombs on the law. Big Law is disintegrating before our eyes, with associates and staff being downsized all across the country. Lawyers who are client centric are surviving (and dare I say, thriving) during the transition and other firms of  billing machines are panicking.  Law schools have had to scramble to move to online instruction and now discussion of pass/fail grading, doing away with bar exams and equipping lawyers to be more client centric are part of the zoom discussion.

What will be left standing?

Of course, there is a part of me that wants to roll out my publications and say, “I told you so” and reinvigorate the crusade. This time in my mind’s eye I’m carrying a flag out front of the pack leading through the rubble of singed yellow legal pads on the ground to higher ground.  But what I know now, is if I do that, I will be lost again.  And my current round of suffering will be for naught.  You see, the practice of law has been dysfunctional for years and apparently, I wasn’t the only one who noticed it.  The change is taking care of itself through the path of COVID 19, which lawyers would call force majeure or “act of God.”  It’s not just the law that will change dramatically after this extraordinary phase of life.  It’s most every business, system, government.

But what about us as individuals? Will we change? And how will we show up post-pandemic?

For me, never again will I minimize a small word of encouragement, a hug with a suffering person, sharing the heart stories and sitting beside (or across the screen from) a client while we navigate their life through change. It may be a change caused by a legal intervention or, as happened this week,  a pandemic that makes them realize they want to learn skills to better communicate with their co-parent. Either way, I’ll be paying rapt attention to what is happening with the people I will serve.

I will go forward and embrace my new role, which is the role that I’ve had all along but took for granted.  But first, I’ll be watching the Andrea Bocelli Easter concert live streamed. And I’ll cry tears that contain many profound emotions while he sings as I sit alone in quarantine on Easter Sunday. Through his concert that’s really a prayer, I’ll proclaim once and for all that I am enough, if I simply choose to be the change I want to see in the law.

shallow focus photography of white sheep on green grass

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

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Barrister Barista

photo “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”-Philo of Alexandria
In my love affair with perfectly foamed lattes, I’ve spent many happy days at Starbucks. When the children were small, my friend Laura and I would meet there every single day. I would have a latte, usually with nonfat milk, except when I went through my soy phase. Laura would have an Americana with room for cream.

The Phoenix area has a million Starbuck’s, so we would call each other (before texting was available) to coordinate which location was convenient for our meeting, based on our schedules. “I’m picking up the triplets at school early for a dental appointment,” she might say.

“I will be at the church, can we meet half way in between?” I’d respond, and for several years we accommodated each other without the slightest amount of stress.

“I need to go first today,” one of us would say once we sat down with our coffees. We poured out stressors and anxiety becoming each other’s amateur therapists. People are in disbelief that we only missed a handful of days over the course of several years, before I moved back to Iowa.

Our daily meetings grounded me during years where I was lonely because of a traveling husband, unsure  how to raise kids, and yearning for my lawyer world during a period as stay at home mom. Laura could validate my feelings, tell me the kid’s coughs needed Robitussin and being a lawyer herself, explore the injustices of the OJ Simpson case based on an analysis of the evidence.
I supplied similar support to her as she raised triplets with her busy emergency room physician husband. By the time we finished our coffee and dashed to our respective mom mobiles to get back to our duties we were poised to face life with a fresh approach.

At our favorite Starbucks, Carl was the manager. Because we were regulars, it was like meeting another friend when he was working. When he transferred locations we moved our rendezvous to his new store whenever possible.

When I was divorced from my children’s father, I was in between jobs, having given up my status as VP of a California based mediation firm to try to save a failing marriage. Post-divorce I was left having to regroup to get a job in Scottsdale, and doors were not opening.

One day at coffee, I made a spontaneous inquiry of Carl. “Carl, would you ever hire me?”

Carl was puzzled knowing I was a lawyer, but also knowing Starbucks provided medical health benefits, which I needed. The next thing I knew I was handed a green apron and a post at a new Starbucks Carl was managing in a stylish part of Scottsdale.

The people I worked with had no clue I was a lawyer. I tried to keep that fact underground, partly from embarrassment that I was underemployed, and also to avoid getting asked for legal advice. I was just “Kim,” and  I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Secretly I was “Kim, the lawyer who struggles to steam milk.”

My twenty-something coworker Maggie became my guide to the Starbuck’s world. Keeping up with a busy caffeine -seeking crowd, was not easy. Some customers were rude and impatient, some downright hateful, others were pleasant. Those who said hello, asked how I was getting along as the “newbie,” and called me by name were a joy. I was working hard, on my feet, trying to live up to Carl’s rigorous standards for a clean store, going home tired at the end of my shift, particularly on days when it had started at 5 a.m.

If I would gripe to Maggie she never engaged, but instead was always upbeat, expressing gratitude for her job. Maggie would often excuse herself abruptly for a bathroom break. I became curious as to why she would leave her work station so suddenly. Eventually I asked a coworker.

“Maggie has cancer,” he told me. “She is going through chemotherapy and leaves her post to get sick. She has to work to keep the insurance. Poor thing should be home in bed.”

I was shocked. Here I had been a prissy Scottsdale lawyer/mom who had thought I was so noble working at Starbucks. Right beside me was Maggie, struggling to survive. I eventually asked Maggie if there was anything I could do to help her. She seemed disappointed that her secret was out, and basically said “Thanks so much but I am fine. I enjoy working with you.” That was it.

The next morning when it was still dark, as I went in to open the store I saw Maggie getting off the bus. For the first time in my life, I was unable to know what to do to help someone. I decided the best thing I could do to honor her was to watch her humility up close and to learn to do something about my own ego based on her example.

A few mornings later a particularly obnoxious business woman came to the counter enraged, oblivious to the line packed tightly out the door. “You are out of cream!” she squealed. “Perhaps “you people” don’t know what it is like to be a busy executive needing to keep on your schedule! We get delayed by something that you should be taking care of!”

My initial instinct was to lash back saying: “I will have you know I am a lawyer and I doubt YOU are qualified to argue before the Supreme Court!” At the same time, I saw Maggie down the counter from me, smiling and selecting a pastry for a customer.

“I am so sorry ma’am, let me get you that cream right away,” I said instead, grabbing the decanter and filling it up. “I am sorry you were inconvenienced and I hope you have a wonderful day.”

Somehow I was able to channel what I’d learned from Maggie. And strangely, in the turn of a moment, I really did want the woman  to have a wonderful day. For all I  knew she was in a struggle of her own, unable to handle it with Maggie’s grace.

Eventually I left Starbucks and Arizona, resuming my law and mediation practice in Iowa. Leaving Laura’s friendship was devastating. I visit Arizona often and we always “do coffee” daily while I am there.

I ‘ve gone back to the Starbucks where I worked. It’s been totally remodeled. Carl is gone to stores unknown. Maggie is not there. I wonder if she is even alive.

Now, when I walk into a Starbucks  I take a  moment to look the barista in the eye, smile, make small talk and even call them by name. I do the same with the clerk at the grocery store and the cashier at the gas station. I know from my work at Starbucks that a little kindness makes all the difference.

And all of our lives, matter.

This post was originally published in 2013.  My son Clint, age 23, has started working part time as a barista at Starbucks so it reminded me of this post.  Welcome to the barista family son!

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Catching the Emotional Virus

depression-is-contagious

“Peace begins with a smile.”-Mother Teresa

I believe that each of us navigates life with an ever-present stream of malaise that runs inside of us. Sometimes it’s a low trickle, and other times it rushes as a result of life’s storms that fill it to capacity.

I’m working hard to navigate internal rushing waters at the Phoenix airport, returning to Iowa after a week long Arizona visit. I’m leaving behind in Scottsdale my three children and best girlfriend and her husband. My children’s father is here as well, and we’ve spent the past week as an emotionally healthy post divorce family having some quality time together, reminiscing about a past that was simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Our time has included the seriousness of my former husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease that is ravaging his body.

My gate to Des Moines is full of sleepy passengers, some eating gross burritos and thick crust pizza from the food stands near our gate, even though it’s only 8AM. Most are tired, flat affects, biding time before being smushed into a small plane with luggage and their souvenir cactus in a box.

I decide to grab a nonfat chai latte but Starbucks is too far of a hike, so I find my place in the reasonably short line at a nondescript coffee kiosk. I let out a deep sigh as the wellspring of emotions continues to bubble up.

I look ahead  in line to see which coffee cashier will serve me, and am immediately drawn energetically to “left cashier.” A 40-something striking African American woman with a big beautiful smile and bright eyes, she beams with light greeting each weary traveler with a vibrant “Good morning!” and pleasant small talk while making direct eye contact. “Right cashier”on the other side of the kiosk has a low grade smile and is not nearly as exuberant.

I try to jockey into position so I can end up with left cashier. I want to suck in her emotional state because I feel immediate internal calming just from studying her from my place in line.

This phenomenon of reacting to another’s emotion has been proven scientifically. It’s “emotional contagion” and studies at Yale and elsewhere confirm that every encounter we have produces an invisible impact of emotions that transmit between us. Our emotions have the power to nourish others or produce toxicity.

It’s thanks to our brain mechanisms including the amygdala and the basal areas of the brain stem that regulate reflex and automatic response. Once the physiology kicks in the path is open for the emotions to flow. My low energy crowd at the gate was bringing me down and left cashier’s glow zapped my brain into receiving a whole different emotional path.

Studies in emotional contagion prove that both good and bad feelings spread, although the research is mixed on which are more contaigous. Objective measures show those impacted by the virus of good emotions register higher in cooperation, fairness, collaboration and overall group performance. I have seen this in my work as a professional mediator, watching upbeat emotion and a positive outlook in the private meeting rooms result in more settlements.

We’ve all experienced the brain circuitry of emotional contagion; think about when someone smiles and we smile back without even thinking about it. When I train mediators, I assign the students to  make eye contact and smile at every person they encounter,  from the grocery clerk to their children and spouse,  after they leave our training day. Debriefing confirms the emotional contagion process is real, and the trainees are exhilarated by the exercise. Past trainees often tell me they still practice the exercise.

A New York study  confirms that emotions are highly contagious in our most emotionally laden relationship: marriage. Humans react most severely to negative emotions including pain, sadness, and fear. Thus, one spouse’s depression is likely to trigger a similar depression in the other spouse. This begs the question of whether a spouse who sets an intention to consistently exude positivity can counteract one who’s consistently sad.

Some of us are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others, and a good indicator is how much your mood changes when you are around strong emotion.  I identify as a happy, optimistic person but also I am an empath. Empaths are people who are hyper-sensitively tuned in to others’ emotions such that we sometimes take them in without even realizing it, often causing strong emotional swings. I’ve learned to be vigilant putting up a mental shield to negative emotions, which can be difficult in my work as a family lawyer and mediator. I also try to consistently emote positive, healthy emotions to supercharge the atmosphere around hurting clients. If I am not rested or I’m “hangry” (that ugly state of being hungry, low blood sugar and grouchy) I easily take in the low energy emotions of those around me.

Despite my attempted maneuvering, I end up in right cashier’s line. I make direct eye contact and smile: “Hi, I’m Kim how are you today?” and she smiles back saying she is doing well. I find out she is Michelle and we have a light hearted smiling exchange as she rings me up, making direct eye contact, and tells me to have a wonderful safe journey. I’m hopeful that the virus now permeates the entire coffee kiosk line and maybe even the whole airport. I sip my warm latte, noticing the malaise river is back within it’s shores. I pull my shoulders back triggering erect posture and walk purposefully to my gate. I board the plane to Iowa, off to do the work I know I am called to do.

If you are interested in coaching or mediation training contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

 

 

 

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