Lawyers and Happiness – A Pragmatic Discussion
by Paul Wingo
Webster dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment. The question of “Am I happy” is central to the human experience. Our society is particularly obsessed with happiness or the lack thereof. We are constantly bombarded with pitches trying to tell us why we are not happy and why a certain product or idea will cure it. Every religion, philosophy, or psychological method tells you how to be happier. We are over medicated, over stimulated, and overwhelmed constantly in this life. To top it off, we in the legal profession made the decision to spend a ton of money and time becoming a lawyer—a career path known for long hours, angry clients, burn out, depressive issues, and substance abuse. Throw a bunch of family and social obligations on top of that and you have the recipe for the modern lawyer asking the same question as so many folks throughout history have asked: “Am I happy?”
I have given talks on this issue numerous times. I have interviewed top lawyers about it. I have spoken to religious leaders and psychologists about it and here is my take away. The one true constant in life is suffering. Think about it—from the moment you are born you are a puzzle of want and unfulfilled desires. In a long enough time span, you lose. Your body will have ailments. For every single one of us, the prognosis is fatal. There is no way around it. You will watch people you love fall ill and die. You will see the constant stream of sadness in the world and in your communities. Suffering is universal. It does not matter how rich you are or how poor you are. You will suffer in life. It does not matter what faith you have or even if you have faith at all; bad things happen to good people. But here is the secret: bad things happen to bad people and even to people who sit on the fence. Bad things happen to each and every one of us.
What? That does not sound very happy Paul? Nope. It isn’t. There is not any cure all. I wish I had the magic bullet that would magically end suffering, but I don’t. If you are living you will suffer. So, I am going to say something controversial here, stop trying to avoid suffering. It will not work. Walk right into the center of the break down and embrace it. This is one of the simplest truths I can shout. We spend so much time punishing ourselves for suffering that we end up suffering more. We constantly ask, why me? What did I do? It just does not matter. Suffering will come regardless of our actions. If we would just accept it is present and jump right into the suffering, then we can begin to deal with it and learn from it. Suffering will not go away.
One of my happiest moments in my life was when my mom died. Huh? Yep you heard me. Yes, I was absolutely devastated when my mom was diagnosed with inoperable cancer during my 1L year in law school. Of course, it made me sick watching her go through chemotherapy. There was a deep empty place in my heart when she passed away the summer between my 2L and 3L year. But I spent time with her, planned a family cruise that we had a blast on, came home from D.C. when she said she could not work anymore and was going on hospice, proposed to my wife Brina when she said it would give her great comfort to see me propose before she passed, and spent the whole day in bed with her watching a boot legged season of Dr. Who the day before she fell into a sleep from which she would never wake. I knew she was going to die. I did not try to avoid it. Out of that suffering came one of my greatest states of well-being and contentment knowing I did everything I could to make her suffering a shared journey that we faced together.
Is there a guide to life? Nope. Are we going to get through this mess unscathed? Absolutely not. But if you have a willingness to meet your suffering head on you will feel more engaged with your universe. It will steel you to the difficult realities of existence and let you have ownership over them instead of feeling hapless. We do not get to choose if we suffer but we do get to choose how we respond to it. So, instead of trying to find the good you are missing out on, work on dealing with the problems you are facing. Look at your suffering as an opportunity and not as a loss.