I was having difficulties at work. The marketing department where I worked should have had a staff of ten, but we were down to three, including myself. My manager had left, as had two other managers, and I was the new person in a department that had no direction and no staffing. As the new employee, just a few years out of school and newly hired, I wanted to step up and prove myself, to make this broken situation work. I’d been staying late at work every day, doing my own job and trying to make up for the loss of the other 7 people who should have been in our department.
It was lonely and depressing and exhausting, and in the end (of course) all my efforts were futile. It wasn’t my role to “save” a marketing department that was broken. People left because they didn’t want to be there; we couldn’t hire new people because they didn’t want to board a sinking ship. I got no direction from anyone, so didn’t know what I should be doing. When I asked by non-existent bosses’ boss, the VP of marketing, whether I was focusing my time on the right priorities, she avoided me like the plague, wouldn’t answer emails or phone calls. She had her own problems, bunkered herself into her office, and I was left hanging out to dry, working alone and going nowhere like a hamster on a wheel.
By the way, I was living alone in a one bedroom apartment, coming home from work at 8pm, walking for an hour in the evening, microwaving my dinner, and then going to bed and trying to keep my growing anxiety at bay. None of this was sustainable, of course.
This work situation was more than I could manage at that time (I couldn’t manage it today either). Now, I’d have given my 2 weeks’ notice in a second and walked away from the whole mess. Then, I tried to fix a broken situation and just ended up broken myself. After four months working 60 hour weeks, including coming in on weekends, I lived in a fugue state of constant anxiety. I never knew if my work made any difference at all, or if I was even working on the right things, and there was nobody to tell me. I could have done zero work, and nobody would have noticed, but I went in the other direction, and nobody noticed either. I was utterly lost, cast adrift without a compass.
Yet that job, and the loneliness of my life then, and the 3 weeks I’d ultimately spend in a psychiatric hospital, all of that gave me the most important lesson I’d ever gotten in life, which is that we need to feel, always, to be aware of our emotions and to prioritize them above all else because when you deny that you are feeling lost, especially when you are indeed lost, you will end up deeply damaging yourself. You can't pretend you're okay when you're not.
I couldn’t fix what was wrong with the marketing department, but I could have managed my own feelings better. I could have realized that I needed to get out, just as 70% of the department had, or at least taken care of myself first in a messed up situation. I stepped up instead of stepping back. When we don’t understand our own limitations, and don't act to protect ourselves, we get into a world of trouble, as I did then.
I thought I was doing the right thing for my career and my organization, yet I ended up shattered and broken and in the hospital for 3 weeks, spending the next five years of my life slowly putting the pieces back together and coming to terms with my own limitations. I don’t see it now as a mistake, but as a lesson in self-awareness. Today, I'm hyper-aware of my vulnerabilities, which is my greatest strength as a human being.
I offer all this background because I want to tell you about the only good thing I experienced in the middle of that work-related mess, something that happened a few weeks before I stopped sleeping and found myself walking all night and all morning, lost, hearing voices in my head, walking into morning traffic, before being brought into the hospital by the state police.
My ten-year old niece came over to my apartment, along with my sister, and looked around amazed at the newness and wonder she saw before her. She looked at the furniture and the blue walls and everything and said how great it must be to live here, to have your own place and be able to do whatever you wanted. I was suffering every day, awake only to my own pain and trying to “fix” my department, but my niece saw only wonder and joy wherever she looked. It stunned me.
I watched her observe the whole world with the eyes of a child. And I’m not condemning her innocence but celebrating it, holding it up as something I lacked then but badly needed. We all need this ability to see the wonder and possibility around us, and it’s so easy to lose our ability to see possibilities in ourselves and others. My niece reminded me of that at a dark time. After we’d had lunch, I came back to that same apartment and cried for an hour, holding my face in my hands, because I knew I’d lost something precious, that I was lost and didn’t know what to do.
And when I was in the hospital just weeks later, trying to feel my way through the darkness for the light switch somewhere along the wall, shuffling along like a zombie, searching for some shred of hope to go on with my life, I thought back to my niece’s visit that Saturday, and it helped me realize that I would have to begin all over again -- I’d need to go back to the beginning and figure out where I’d gotten lost. I wanted to see the world afresh through my own eyes, to go back and find myself. It took me years, and I'm still on that journey, but, and this but means everything, I see possibilities everywhere I look now, in myself and others.
In Zen Buddhism,, this is called “beginner’s mind” ("shoshin"). And it means being fully awake, present and aware of the full possibility of each moment. And yes, there is suffering here too, but also acceptance and compassion for self and others, forgiveness and joy and more. There’s a line from Bob Dylan’s great song “My Back Pages” -- “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” For me, the line means that we can go back to the beginning, even if we’re awash in the suffering and pain of life experience. We have the eyes of a child within us always if we wish to use them, and we need to use them.
At the worst time in my life, my ten-year-old niece saved me, gave me a glimpse into how life could and should be: perpetually new and filled with infinite possibilities. It’s strange to think that as I get older, I’m becoming more child-like, but it’s more than true. It’s also something that gives my life purpose and meaning and grace. We are all broken, but that’s only the beginning, not the end of the journey. Open your eyes and see the wonder that's there. I’m trying to do so every day, and, on more and more occasions, I'm able to see the infinite possibilities that are around (and within) me, the ones my niece saw everywhere that Saturday -- even, I suppose, in me.