“Pandora opened the box and all the illnesses and hardships that gods had hidden in the vessel escaped. Frightened by the ghostly forms she saw fleeing from the box, she tried to close it as fast as she could. The one remaining spirit, trapped in the box, was Hope.”
Yes, I am a lawyer, and I “practice the law.” Bankruptcy law. But what I really do for living—have always done—is rescue people. I am good at it, but it takes a toll on me. At my age, I am supposed to be “hardened” against the down-on-luck stories. The endless accounts of illness in the family, loss of a job, the car accidents without insurance, the health insurance that was there but ran out, thoughts of suicide at the prospect of losing the family home, the wayward child enmeshed in the criminal system.
I listen to their stories. And I know that people who file for bankruptcy protection come from regular families who hit hard times. A loss of a job, a medical problem, a divorce. It’s not the stories the media spins out—that people have lost their sense of right and wrong, deadbeats buying consumer products they do not need.
And, they blame themselves. They cringe at why they took out a home loan they did not understand. For failing to appreciate that they have no job security. For trusting family members who let them down. For thinking their health insurance would cover the hospital bills.
At my age, I am supposed to be jaded – that I have heard it all, figured out the angles, fixed much. That I am entitled to say “no” when faced with a plea for help, because I am too busy, too tired, or as my dad used to warn, “let George do it.”
This is the problem. Either I have a bad memory (a real possibility at 58 years of age) in thinking that the tough stories I heard 30 years ago were not that bad, or we are living in the most disastrous economic time of the last eighty years.
Yes, I can get people back on their feet, financially, by getting rid of debt. I can get rid of second mortgages. I can pay the value of a car instead of what is owed; get five years to repay taxes with no interest or penalties. I can get rid of those devilish credit cards and pay-day loans.
But here is the point – I can’t create income for my clients. I can’t return thriving businesses to our community, or develop well-paying jobs. I can’t restructure our educational system to train high-tech manufacturing to produce what Germany does.
Our community has been hijacked by Corporate America, whose eye on the bottom line has nothing to do with the well-being of Americans. And the game is so terribly rigged that I am pessimistic for my generation and many to follow. I fear for my daughters that they will not be able to make a living or afford a home without working 60 hours a week.
As I said, the game is rigged. More than 50% of former Congressmen and U.S. Senators become lobbyists and 75% of judges sitting on the federal bench came from practices focusing on corporate clients and their interests. Our U.S. Supreme Court has decided that a corporation is entitled to the same “free speech” that you and I enjoy.
So what do I do in my little office? I figure out fantasy budgets for a family, and pretend that three people can eat on $300 a month and that kids really don’t need many clothes. And I have to tell clients that, no matter how hard I try to get the budget to work, they just can’t afford the tiny, tired house in Morrison.
This thing I do – helping people who are broke—is becoming very hard. And instead of becoming jaded, I look at the faces of my clients and feel the pain like I have never felt before.
I have stopped looking at the faces of people on the street, because I wonder and worry—how are they making it?
At 58 years old, having litigated just about every issue there is in consumer bankruptcy—I know how to rescue. But I am getting old and I can’t shrug off stress like I used to.
So, I have been reading about stress and how damaging it is to one’s health. And like a good student, I have read many books on the subject, such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living the Rest of your Life, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, some teachings of Jesus. The following are highlights worth sharing.
I’ve learned to ask myself these questions:
- Do I tend to put off living in the present in order to worry about the future, or to yearn for some magical rose garden over the horizon?
- Do I sometimes embitter the present by regretting things that happened in the past—that are over and done with?
- Do I get up in the morning determined to seize the day to get the utmost out of these 24 hours?
- When shall I start to do this? Next week? Tomorrow? Today?
The next time trouble backs you up in a corner, ask yourself “What is the worst that can possibly happen if I can’t solve this problem?” Prepare yourself mentally to accept the worst—if necessary. Then calmly improve on the worst—which you’ve already mentally agreed to accept.
Remind yourself of the exorbitant price you can pay for worry in terms of your health. Those who do not know how to fight worry, die young. And lawyers are so prone to intolerable stress.
Fear of the unknown kicks in our survival instincts, our “reptilian brain.” Rationality goes out the window. The adrenal glands fire like a machine gun. We revert to our atavistic instincts, and logic takes a vacation. We want to either fight or run—or both.
In other words— worrying is not good. Half the worry in the world is caused by people trying to make decisions before they have sufficient information on which to base a decision. Instead, after carefully weighing all the facts, come to a decision. Then, get busy carrying out your decision—and dismiss all anxiety about the outcome.
Smart businessmen use this technique when presented with a problem:
A. What is the problem?
B. What is the cause of the problem?
C. What are all possible solutions?
D. What is the best solution?
This is a system for occupying a non-stop mind like mine:
- Crowd worry out of your mind by keeping busy. Plenty of action is one of the best therapies ever devised for curing the bedeviling anxiety (sometimes it takes more coffee than I can handle).
- Don’t fuss about trifles. Don’t permit little things—the mere termites of life—to ruin your happiness. Put them in a box and forget about them. (Men can do this “compartment” trick a bit easier than woman, unless that man is prone to obsessing, like this author).
- Use the law of averages to outweigh your worries? Ask yourself: “What are the odds against this thing happening at all?” (As Tom Petty sang, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”)
- Cooperate with the inevitable. If you know circumstances are beyond your power to change or revise, say to yourself: “It is so; it cannot be otherwise.”
- Put a stop loss order on your worries. Decide just how much anxiety a thing may be worth—and refuse to give it anymore.
Bury the past as if it were dead. Don’t saw sawdust.
Seven ways to cultivate a mental attitude that will bring you peace and happiness:
- Let’s fill our minds with thoughts of peace, courage, health and hope because our life is what our thoughts make it. Shakespeare said it. So did Marcus Aurelius.
- Never try to get even with our enemies, because if we do we will hurt ourselves far more than we hurt them (yet I still carry grudges).
- Instead of worrying about ingratitude, resign yourself and expect it. Jesus healed 10 lepers in one day—and only one thanked him. Why should we expect more gratitude than Jesus got?
- Marcus Aurelius said “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
- Let’s remember that the only way to find happiness is not to expect gratitude—but to give for the joy of giving.
Count your blessings—not your troubles!
- When fate hands us a lemon, try to make lemonade.
- I used to think fear was the strongest motivator. It certainly was in law school, that first year. And while that “reptile brain” still dictates much of what we do, over time I’ve learned that if there is an answer, maybe it’s hope?
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
About the Author
Stephen Berken, Esq. is an attorney in Denver. Berken earned his J.D. degree from Hastings College of the Law, University of California. He is the Colorado state chair for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, the Colorado State co-chair for the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) and a board certified expert in consumer bankruptcy, American Bankruptcy Board of Certification.