I am incredibly fortunate that, for the most part, I have been able to spend my career doing things I love to do. That does not mean that I enjoy every moment of my working life…not by any stretch of imagination. On a good day, I go home feeling like I have been sufficiently challenged, and that I accomplished some degree of positive change in my corner of the world. This is what separates the good days from the not-so-satisfying ones.
Into our lives, some of both kinds of days will inevitably fall.
In my mid-twenties, I made a decision that made logical sense at the time. I was recruited to a job that paid a lot more than I had been making, doing similar work to what I had been enjoying in a non-profit setting, but kicking it up a notch to work in a corporate setting. I was determined and idealistic. I worked hard and chose to take the high road through some particularly nasty days. For example, the person several decades older than I was whom I supervised, and who would come in dressed in perfect Talbot’s Petites attire, look over her glasses at me in my inexpensive, larger woman’s clothing and say, “What a lovely outfit you’ve chosen to grace us with today!” with a piercingly smug look on her face. I would ride the wave, focus on the clinical issues of the clients, and let the water roll off me. I would go home an emotional wreck, but no one knew that. I was still effecting some change, so I sucked it up.
After about a year, my corporate employers also started showing their true colors. One day, the day of the “Million Man March” to be exact, we (supervisors) were asked to write down the name of every employee of color who didn’t show up to work or called in for any reason and tell them they may lose their jobs if they failed to report. I refused, and when my anger at racist injustice started to rage, they suddenly said it was “just a joke.” It wasn’t funny. The final straw came for me when I worked really hard to resolve some concerns regarding dignity and quality of life in the most run-down of the nursing facilities the company owned. I was called in to the corporate office one day and commended for my work. I began to have hope, to feel like I was making a difference, when my supervisor burst my bubble and told me that my work saved them a lawsuit, and he was giving me a bonus of a percentage of the money that they would have paid to settle out of court. He pledged to do this every time I worked my magic and convinced a family not to file a law suit.
There’s an old adage about knowing what you are and realizing that at some point, you’re just haggling over the price. I looked in the mirror that night, and I looked at my bonus check. Yep, that was me. But no, it wasn’t me. I started sending out my resumes, and I handed in that bonus check and my resignation shortly after.
I moved from that job to an amazing, wonderful workplace where all my skills, my heart, and my values were put to work and supported. I took a huge cut in pay, and times were tight on my budget. But, I had great colleagues and a meaningful role in the lives of people living with grief and loss.
One day, about a year into my new job, my phone rang. I picked it up, and it was one of the nursing staff members I used to work with at my former job. She had tracked me down, she said, because she now worked for the corporate office. “We’re trying to turn things around,” she told me, “and we realize we need you back. I want to set up a time for you to come and meet with us. You can name your salary. We just want you back.” I told her I would think about it.
During the next hour, I raided the snack cabinet for our children’s support group and found a bag of Doritos (sorry, Jill…I did replace them, though!). I felt a queasiness overtaking me that wasn’t even related to the fake orange cheese I was ingesting. Why is it that ethical conflicts always seemed linked to money? I was so tired of struggling to make ends meet. Was it so wrong to try again, to be paid well and possibly make a difference? Maybe it would be different this time.
More Doritos and more queasiness. My next client appointment was about to arrive. What was I doing eating all these damn cheesy empty calories, anyhow? I had started exercising, I was eating healthier in spite of my reduced salary. Well, maybe just a few more.
I was standing at the cabinet getting one more handful when I had the epiphany. I hated that old job where every day, I was asked to compromise my values for the almighty dollar. Here I was, already trying to fill the void with anything that could compensate for the fact that I was thinking about selling out. Ten minutes until my client would arrive. Just enough time.
I called her back. “That was fast!” said my former colleague as my call was routed through. “I know,” I said. “I just called to say that I wouldn’t go back to work for you, not even for a million dollars.”
I hung up, smelling the smoke from the bridge I had just burned. Someone else would have to tend that fire, because I was done. I tossed out my crumbs of Doritos, poured myself some water, and went to greet my client.
It is now almost 20 years later, and I still remember that moment. I was young and impetuous. But I was also wise. I knew myself, and I knew when to walk away. You cannot put a price on being able to look yourself in the mirror and respect the person looking back at you. That is priceless.
There was a reason I needed to remember this story during this past week. It provided exactly the right-sized beam of light I needed to make a good decision. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to move my focus away from all the things, paid or unpaid, that bring such great fulfillment to my life right now.
That realization is tonight’s small point of light.