Going Back Without Going Backward

It’s a very strange feeling to be inside a law office after almost four years.

For one thing, there’s the nostalgic smell: a combination of paper, ink, stress, greed, decade old high-traffic carpet and coffee. For another there’s the physical presence of it, a world of people wearing business clothes and professional smiles, offering firm handshakes and witty jokes, and that eternal feeling of circling sharks. I make a good shark myself, so that’s not a problem for me, and I even like the smell (except for the coffee).

And doing the job is so comfortable. Like riding a bicycle, you never really forget how to prepare a lawsuit. I sit at the desk, I put the ducks in a row, and someone pats me on the head and calls me a good boy. I resist the temptation to bark. And inside, some part of me that I didn’t even know was there relaxes, and sighs contentedly, and says, “Oh yes, I know how to do this. No sweat.”

The part of me that’s relaxed and happy wants to tell me that I can just slide right back into doing what I always used to do, but that’s not true. Time has passed, nearly four years of it, and those years haven’t been, shall we say, dull.

The world isn’t the same in 2021 as it was in 2017, and neither am I. My wife and I have made a lot of deliberate changes to our lifestyle, including working less, owning less, and earning less money. We’ve largely rejected the American Dream in favor of a more spiritual life, valuing time spent together over money in the bank, preferring quiet contemplation to anxious activity, and storing up treasures in heaven while placidly watching moths and rust destroy what we have on earth.

Hence the strangeness, and this question: how can I go back to a career I thought I’d left behind for good without going backwards in my growth as a person? Even if I don’t want to go back to my old ways I can’t just pretend like I was never the person who lived them.

I thought about this a lot during the six weeks I was polishing my resume, filling out applications, and driving to interviews. I thought about it as attorneys and their office managers quizzed me about my capabilities and haggled about expected salaries. I thought about it as I lay awake at night, listening to my wife breathing softly in her sleep and worrying about how I was going to provide for her financially without sacrificing the spiritual harmony we’ve built together.

Then suddenly, in the midst of an interview, some clarity came.

The interviewer asked me to tell her about a time in my life when I got the job done for my employer, but couldn’t feel good about the way I did it. The question stopped me short. In all honesty my whole career was like that. Yes, I was a good worker, and yes, I think my office did a good job for our clients, but I killed myself to do it. There was never time to catch my breath, forget quiet contemplation; and no matter how well I did the only reward available seemed to be more money to spend on things I didn’t want or need.

I knew for all that time that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what it was. No one in my profession could tell me; they all thought everything was just fine, great in fact. So I buried the feeling deep inside me and muddled along, getting the job done for my employers but never feeling good about it. It was only after I quit and spent years getting serious about spiritual matters, building a home and a marriage and a life that I could feel all the way good about that I realized what had been wrong in the way I did my job before. I needed to step away from it, silence the bustle, before I could have enough perspective to see truly.

So now I have returned, but I’m not forgetting or ignoring the lessons I’ve learned in the meantime. The values my wife and I have been cultivating aren’t just for the private sphere; I think they can be for public life too. It may be hard and challenging, but I believe I can work in a law office and still cultivate personal relationship, quiet contemplation, and spiritual riches. And maybe there’s someone out there who’s suffering the way I used to, and who’s looking for someone to show them a different way. If I could help another person free themselves from the anxiety and destruction of the American Dream, that would definitely be a job I could feel good about doing.

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