Tales of the Office: Earn and Burn

§  We are about to begin another holiday season, where love, compassion and generosity of spirit should reign supreme. Well, just call me Ebeneezer!  §

I am an unsympathetic person, and terribly judgmental.  I’ve heard people tell me, quite without irony, that I am caring and kind and empathetic.  I shake my head in wonder.  They obviously don’t know me even half as well as I know myself!

As a perfect example of my lack of empathy, I recall the ungenerous, hypercritical attitude I held toward certain coworkers during my years working at an office.  These were the people who, the very minute they accumulated their monthly stipend of sick, vacation or personal time, were nowhere to be found, having taken a day off using the leave they’d just accrued.  Several of my coworkers demonstrated this behavior, but one in particular was the unrivalled Queen of what we termed “Earn and Burn”.  Each time she earned a day’s leave she bailed, leaving the work on her desk to be covered by her more responsible coworkers.

Oddly enough, had she been (as some of the Earn and Burners were forced to do) using her earned leave time so quickly for desperate need–her own or loved ones’ chronic illnesses; the needs of small children; other ordinary life crises, such as waiting on dilatory repairmen–well, had that been the case, my minimal amount of available empathy would have been decidedly engaged.  But it was not.  The Queen took each of her days for idle recreation.   Watching her coworkers struggle to deal with the problems caused by her constant absences, I fumed. There was nothing I could do about the situation so long as those in authority allowed her to get by with the behavior.  We all suspected that she must have known where some bodies were buried, for her supervisors, wimps to a man and a woman, turned a blind eye to her behavior. It appeared there were no consequences to her irresponsibility, for the Queen was never disciplined…at least not by the office.

The Universe, though—the Universe apparently had other ideas.

The Queen got sick.  Major, real, big time sick: weeks of hospitalization and further weeks of recovery.  And she had no leave time available to use.  She’d burned through all of it.

Oh, she was eligible for short-term disability leave, and it was granted.  But that essentially meant only that she would have a job waiting, if and when she recovered.  Since she had no leave time, her days off were all unpaid.

Our office, as it always did, pulled together to send get-well cards and a bouquet of flowers; some of the staff visited her at the hospital.  The work on her desk was divvied up among the other employees in her unit so she would not return to an avalanche of paperwork.  A cadre of staff members, perhaps hoping to be heard by those in authority,  complained loudly because our employer did not allow those with excess accumulated leave time to donate it to a coworker in need. 

Unsympathetic jerk that I am, I said not a word.  In point of fact, I had so much accumulated leave time that I could have taken off a good two months without losing a single cent of my salary.  But even if a donation policy had been in place, I wouldn’t have offered up so much as one lousy little hour to mitigate our coworker’s situation.  Her lack of available leave time was no one’s fault but her own, and I wouldn’t have tossed her a rope, let alone bent down to offer a hand helping her out of the hole she’d dug herself into. I am not so evil that I gloated over her troubles, but I certainly didn’t shed a tear over them, either.

Eventually, I was approached by several coworkers who felt we should take up a collection to assist the Queen financially during her time of desperate need.  As the Administrative Assistant for the office, this was my function; would I arrange it?  I smiled through very unsympathetic gritted teeth and agreed.

The staff came through marvelously, anteing up several hundred dollars.  I created a spreadsheet to track the contributions, sent bulletins out to the staff as the total increased, and finally arranged for two employees to deliver the cash in a card signed by everyone.

But my own contribution was decidedly ungenerous, unlike the large amounts happily tossed into the till by my coworkers.

I am, as I said, both lacking in empathy and terribly judgmental. Looking back through the lens of time to that office situation, I believe that, occasionally, that’s okay.  There are times when compassion, empathy and walking a mile in another’s moccasins are genuinely the order of the day.  But there are other times when one just has to put on the Tough Love mask and say, “Hey, you did this to yourself.” 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Tales of the Office: Under the Weather”, which can be found in the Archives from July 15, 2020.

Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

The Best Revenge (Part 2)

§ At one point or another, we all endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. §

Not long after I bought my little condo, I experienced a series of water-themed disasters. First, my dishwasher began pumping water onto the kitchen floor one Saturday afternoon. I frantically called a repairman who quickly located a small piece of piping that had separated, and fixed it easily. Only a few weeks later, though, as I was both running the dishwasher and doing laundry, I heard the toilet in the half-bath begin making disturbing “burps”. It sounded as though a giant with a bad case of indigestion was lodged inside the pipes! A few minutes later, both washing machine and dishwasher began to drain right onto my already-abused kitchen floor.

After another plumber had cleared out the latest problem, I thought all would be well—until the Saturday that I came downstairs from my morning shower to find my unfortunate kitchen flooded once more.

After locating a plumber who actually knew what he was doing to diagnose and clear the real problem, I found myself sitting with my coworkers the following Monday, bemoaning the mess and expense I’d incurred. Some of the women responded with tales of their own home disasters, many of them far worse than mine, and we commiserated. But the woman sitting across from me looked up from her phone long enough to say in a patronizing tone, “Yeah, well, welcome to homeownership.”

I didn’t reply to her snippy remark, but it stung, especially because a relative had made almost precisely the same reply to my tale of woe. I thought at that time, just as I’d thought in response to Ms. Patronizing’s remark, that the comment was not just unsympathetic; it was rude.

Oddly enough, though, when I began to pay more attention to similar situations, I found that uncaring and insensitive remarks were rife whenever a person dared to discuss an unfortunate circumstance in her or his life. And, surprisingly, these snarky statements were most often made by some individual who had endured a comparable problem.

I found this bewildering. Surely, I thought, surely having been in the same position would make one sympathetic to the plight of anyone who was undergoing a similar difficulty. But that didn’t seem to be the case. It was as if many of those who’d undergone a challenging situation seemed to feel that this entitled them to belittle the experience of anyone else who endured the something similiar.  They apparently felt the need to take the distressed individual down a peg.

Unkind remarks and a demonstrable lack of empathy were, I realized, a roundabout way of announcing, “Hey, I’ve had bad times, too. Tough shit. Deal with it. And don’t expect any sympathy from me.”

In one way, I suppose, this makes sense: all of us, at one point or another, endure rough patches (or worse) in our lives. No one comes out unscathed. But while a few individuals will always whine endlessly over their unfortunate events, expecting everyone within range to proffer them tea and sympathy, the majority of us, describing our problems, are just looking for a listening ear, a nod of understanding; perhaps even advice. To be responded to instead with curt, snide comments is distressing. And to be the person making those comments is simply unnecessary–cruel and unnecessary. There is just no need to compound the unhappiness of someone already in distress.

But, in closing, let me return to the memory of those early mornings with my coworkers, wallowing in coffee and gossip before the day’s labors began. A few months after my series of minor household disasters, Ms. Patronizing joined us before work one morning, and, plopping down into her chair, announced that her bathroom shower was unusable. Her adolescent daughter had been dancing in the shower the night before; while flinging her arms about wildly, she’d struck the tiled wall, only to have it crumble and collapse around her. A small, unnoticed leak from the pipe behind the wall had slowly but surely destroyed the integrity of the structure, and the results were horrendous. Shoulders hunched, head in one hand, my coworker moaned that she was looking at major repairs to her bathroom.

I remembered her snide comment in response to my own series of water-related disasters, and considered for just a moment how utterly delicious it might be to fling her words back at her head. But then I took a breath and said gently, “That really just plain sucks. I wouldn’t wish that kind of trouble on anyone. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

Sometimes the very best revenge is simply to do the right thing.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge”
in the Archives from February 5, 2018, or “My Nosy Encounter”, May 13, 2020