I turned my feedback to SparkleEyes back on myself and it had a major effect.
One of the things I had to do when I searched for a new job was line up references. There are 5-6 people I usually call, and one of the main ones is Julia.
Who is Julia? A former partner at the big corporate firm I started my career at. When I was there, Julia instantly stood out as different. She smiled a lot. She was warm and friendly and conversational. She was never condescending toward anyone, she never felt a need to assert her power over associates. She was more interested in forming mutually respectful relationships than ones in which she had all the leverage. She also was a brilliant attorney; smart as they come, with a good attitude, good emotional intelligence, and a core sense of balance. She had two young children (which she had on her own) who she prioritized above all else.
Julia was an outlier, and add to all of that that she was one of three female partners out of twenty in that department.
Julia and I began working together when the Madoff fraud hit. She had a lot of clients who got burned. She soon staffed me on all her matters, and we sloughed through that saga together.
As I got more senior, I began to become privy to more of the less PC conversations at the firm.
And, I am sad to say, that among my male coworkers and mentors (including partners), Julia was frequently the subject of derision.
She was flighty, flakey and disorganized, they said. She was weak. She didn’t like to work hard. She was sort of dumb.
All completely false.
Was it because Julia suddenly became a threat, after acquiring a multitude of clients through her contacts in the wake of the Madoff fraud? Was it because she was not only a woman, but a smiley, friendly and warm woman — the kind not taken seriously in professional environments? Was it because she refused to throw her power around, be condescending, make associates fearful in her presence?
I couldn’t say, but ultimately — after the Madoff work died down — she was pushed out of the firm. She became a partner at a smaller firm, and met with me a few times to gauge my interest in joining her, but I was focused on a different path.
I had lunch with her about two and half years ago. We met, that time, as old friends, and less as former boss-employee. We talked openly about our lives, fears and career paths. She told me she had taken up singing in a choir and loved it. She said too she wasn’t sure of what she wanted in the future; the expectations of being a partner conflicted with her desire to be with her children as much as possible, but she also needed a certain level of income to pay for their private schools and their life in NYC. I told her about Jimmy and starting over and how I was getting married soon. I told her about the trainings, too, and she suddenly perked up as I described them to her. She said she’d been seeing a therapist, and she was becoming increasingly interested in self-development work. When we parted, we hugged, maybe for the first time. Later I ended up inviting her to my wedding, but she didn’t come.
Julia has remained one of my biggest supporters. She’s given me glowing references again and again. Calling her as a reference for my new job search was a no-brainer.
Only this time, she didn’t call me back. Days went by, then a week–still nothing. I called other partners I knew instead. I knew she’d never blow me off, so I figured she was really busy, or on vacation.
Then she added me on Facebook, without ever having returned my call. I thought that was odd, but since I had already gotten the references I needed, I didn’t press it.
One night I was up at 3am because Brodie wouldn’t fall asleep. I scrolled absentmindedly through Facebook and suddenly remembered Julia had added me as a friend. I clicked on her profile in curiosity.
The first thing I saw–staring me square in the face–was that she had been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer.
My heart sank.
And I had a thought I am not proud of: why Julia? Why not one of those other insufferable sniveling partners? Julia doesn’t deserve this shit. Julia has a family she cares about, a life she cares about.
The next thing I saw was something remarkable.
Julia was still Julia. She posted openly about her diagnosis, and asked everyone to join her for a charity walk. She urged donations for lung cancer research, and particularly for immunotherapy, a new promising treatment that was working for her. She responded to everyone who commented, asking if she could see them soon and suggesting specific plans. She acted genuinely happy to hear from every single person. That was always her magic — staying herself no matter what, no matter her circumstances.
Still, it was a bit of a mystery why she had added me as a friend but never returned my call. Maybe it was too hard to tell me directly; maybe it was too jarring of a clash between her old professional life and her new reality that had changed everything.
I donated to the lung cancer charity she was touting and signed up for the charity walk. I told Jimmy we were going, and we’d take the boys; it was over the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I messaged Julia and I told her I was sorry to hear about what had happened. I told her I’d be there on the 20th.
It was really important to me that I do this. Julia had taught me a critical life lesson: whether you like yourself matters a hell of a lot more than if others like you, and that often means taking a stand for who you are even when it’s unpopular — even when it has real consequences.
In my experience, the force of the big firm culture does one of two things: it crushes people, or it forces them to conform.
It had done neither to Julia. For all of my former colleagues’ comments about her flightiness, her weakness, she had proven herself to have more strength, more tenacity, more power than all of them.
I was going to show up for Julia. I was going to do it in part as an act of defiance — that’s not what the lawyer culture normally does (in my experience). You show up to people’s events if they are an important professional contact. But once they leave the firm or the practice, well, the main reason for putting in the effort is now gone. They drift off into the part of your contacts list that you never bother with anymore.
I nonetheless foolishly reached out to my former colleagues, women and men, and urged them to join me in support of Julia. Surely something like this would break through the bullshit — they’d rise to the occasion, I could inspire them to make a change with me.
Their response was disappointing, but not surprising.
Well, her treatments seem to be going well, is it really that serious?
I don’t know, is advanced stage lung cancer serious? [I hope you sense the sarcasm here.]
Julia has a lot of money anyway, right?
OMG, it’s not about the money! It’s about supporting her in the stand she’s taking for herself and others with lung cancer during one of the hardest times of her life! Seriously??
Well, she smoked, right? Didn’t she smoke?
First of all, fuck you, are you telling me you have NEVER done anything that might give you cancer one day? Second, NO. She didn’t smoke. Sorry, you have to be faced with the reality that life — and death — are complete and utter crap shoots you can’t control.
Not a single one agreed to join me — or even donate. I guess one takeaway is my enrollment skills need work.
Julia responded to my message telling her I was coming. She was overjoyed and a little relieved I had contacted her without her having to directly tell me about what was going on. She then said she’d of course be a reference for me, she was sorry she never called me back, but I told her there was no need.
In the weeks that followed I watched the donations on her page. Where was the donation from the big firm, the one she had given so many years to? Where were the donations from the partners there? Again: I was disappointed but not surprised.
Fast forward to last night.
I had decided I couldn’t make Julia’s charity walk after all. We had no way to get the boys there, no one to watch them. Jimmy looked forward to weekends as his break from being a full time dad, a break he needed. Julia had loads of friends and supporters, she probably wouldn’t even notice I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t know anyone there, either; it was mainly her family friends and people from her synagogue. I’d probably be sort of an unwelcome presence honestly, this strange person no one knew who was never even that close to Julia. It would be better to stay home, be who I needed to be for my family.
…that sounds like a massive amount of bullshit in light of the story I just told, right?
But weeks after first learning of Julia’s diagnosis I was totally disconnected from all of that.
Until I gave the feedback I gave to SparkeEyes and then turned it on myself. It hit me hard.
I said Jimmy, I have a problem. I realized I have to be there tomorrow. He said I thought you might say that. Go and be there and don’t worry about it.
So I’m on the train there now. A later train, because I missed mine by a minute. I texted Jimmy and told him that.
Jimmy said: “Get responsible. You missed the train.”
I laughed. I created that, by changing the context. I laughed, but then I took a hard look at myself.
I’ll show up there late, and that stinks. And I know why–my resistance was not unlike my fellow lawyers’ that I judged. I don’t want to be faced with my own mortality, how life is unfair and unpredictable. I don’t want to see Julia, looking sick. I fear the connection and the intimacy. I fear getting emotional.
I gave into that fear, and I forgot that Julia is still Julia. That that’s why she’s so inspiring; that I won’t see a sick person, but one of my heroes, doing what she does: embracing life, however it comes, embracing others, and facing her challenges with trust in herself and others. That’s who I want to be. That is the epitome of: “the quality of your life is not decided by what happens” — because we all will face hard times, it is inevitable — “but how you react to what happens.”
So because I gave into fear instead of love, weakness instead of courage, cynicism instead of trust, and insecurity instead of believing in my value — I will be late.
But I’ll show up.