At one point in my erratic freelance career in Manhattan, I landed in a small branch of an environmental law firm with its head office in California. It was headed by a cold and beautiful woman with grave emotional problems that she made no bones about publicly sharing.
Her personal assistant was a petite red-head possessed of a voice as squeaky as a Pomeranian. I shall call her Candy. Now Candy sucked up madly to our boss—the benefit being that as long as she flattered the woman to bits, she was allowed to run the office as she damn well pleased. Candy was cute and funny and made us laugh with her endless fund of jokes—but she was also one of the most unethical office managers I ever came across in my history of freelancing. In fact, as soon as our boss flew west on business, Candy would hang a ‘Gone Fishin’’ sign on her office door, indicating she was not to be disturbed; it was common knowledge that she needed time to study for her evening college classes, and office work be damned.
These were pre-internet days and our attorneys had a hard time citing relevant cases when writing up their law briefs. So our head office commissioned an expert to create a database for our use; soon after he flew down from California to train us in managing this tricky animal.
Six of us attended his classes—a petite Filipina with a toothy smile and skimpy dresses, an earnest black gay man with thick glasses who yearned to make it on Broadway, a voluptuous Puerto Rican woman who considered herself “one hot sexy mama”, two white women whose names I do not recall, and yours truly. Of the lot, I and the Filipina seemed to be the only two willing to learn: I, because I am generally terrified of the consequences of not knowing what to do in an emergency, and the Filipina because she loved software.
Christmas holidays were almost upon us when out of the blue the Filipina quit. Since the others claimed they were not capable of operating the database on their own, I had no choice but to obey Candy when she ordered me to man it in addition to my regular duties. Or rather, I had a choice, which was to stomp out of the job—but for some reason I don’t recall, I did not wish to quit this crazy firm as yet. Besides, truth be told, my ego enjoyed the feeling that I alone was able to operate this critical software.
Shortly before Christmas I ended up putting in ten long hours of overtime to produce all the database work our attorneys required to file their briefs for the coming year. (It had to be overtime since my regular workload had to be seen to between the hours of 9 to 5.) Candy approved this schedule and I went through with the work, despite reservations. I marked those ten hours of OT on my time-sheet, made a copy for myself, and handed it to Candy. But, when my salary check arrived a few days later, I saw that I had been given only 1 hour of overtime—instead of the 10 I had marked!
Just an error, I thought—but when I checked my copy of the time-sheet, I saw the “10” was clearly visible. I went over to Candy’s office and saw the Gone Fishin’ sign hanging on her door. Pissed, I flung open the door and explained what had happened. “Just wanted to let you know I’m going to call Head Office and ask them to correct this,” I said, brandishing the time sheet. “Oh no, don’t do that!” Candy begged.”Why not?” I asked, puzzled. Whereupon Candy confessed that it was she who had whited out the “0” after the “1”, therefore depriving me of 9 hours of overtime! She might have gotten away with her callous theft of my time and money—except that I had been so furious about being forced to put in that overtime that I had actually checked my time-sheet to see that I was properly remunerated.
Candy squeaked on and on about how Head Office was “getting on her case”—they frowned severely upon overtime, she went on righteously, and it was a black mark against her when a time-sheet went in with even a single hour of overtime on it. I could only stare at her dumbfounded. What an unethical creature!
My eyes turned heavenward and happened to fall on a framed statement hanging on the wall over her head. It was an ALANON (12-step program for the families of addicts/alcoholics) statement about taking personal responsibility that went something like this: no matter what happens, take personal responsibility—if you blame, you give away your personal power. If someone betrays your trust, take responsibility for trusting an unreliable person; if someone humiliates you, assume responsibility for choosing such a friend; if someone cheats you, be aware that you put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of. Take responsibility because doing so gives you options—then you can either accept the situation, attempt to repair it, or walk away, a wiser person than before.
I told Candy I felt betrayed by her action.”Suck it up, Mira,” she advised me coolly. “I did what I thought was best for us all.” Her attitude only served to piss me off the more—I told her she could either fix the problem herself, or that I would make a formal complaint to Head Office—and then I would quit the bloody firm, leaving her to operate that darned database herself.
I stormed out—and yet that statement of Personal Responsbility stayed with me. What’s more, I empathized with Candy’s moral weakness: I knew she came from a severely dysfunctional family. Like her boss, and though their backgrounds were very different, Candy too spoke openly about her family: an alcoholic father, lunatic mother, and weird siblings. I’m the only one who’s sane, she’d say with a hysterical giggle, yeah, I’m the only one that flew out of the cuckoo’s nest, bay-bee. But now I wondered: had she truly flown out of the nest? .
Back at my desk I brooded over the incident. What had I done wrong here? I’d obeyed my superiors and done what others had refused to do. So really, where had I gone wrong? Had I erred because my heart had not been involved in taking on this extra work? Whatever the case, as the Americans say, Candy had played me for a sucker. And suckers always pay a price.
Once I accepted personal responsibility for the situation, my mind began to wander into other territories of my life: why, I wondered, did I continue to cling to a stagnant marriage when my goal was to seek liberation from desire and fear? Was I blameless? No, I decided sadly, I was not: It was my own egoic need to succeed, as well as to mask my inner suffering from the outside world, that had created this monstrous situation. The bald truth was that my own personal dishonesty was keeping me in chains.
Ever since I choose to honor the wisdom of assuming personal responsibility. And when friends bitch and moan to me about anything ranging from the trivial to the major—an unreliable gardener, money worries, a marriage gone sour, the onset of a debilitating disease, or the end of a job—I advise them to first take personal responsibility for the situation; do this first, I suggest, and you can then act properly—otherwise your thinking will be cloudy and weak and you won’t be able to walk free.
It was years after my face-off with crooked Candy that I met a Buddhist master who grilled us on the essentials of eastern philosophy. As I dived deeply into the ancient teachings on karma, reincarnation, Shunyata (emptiness) and enlightenment, I resolved that no matter what “happened” to me, I would accept it as the result of my own past karma. (The word “karma” just means “doing”—the results come later, in this or another lifetime.) If I could see my present situation simply as the result of my own past thought, speech and action, it would be easier to deal with—but if I blamed others for it, my power would drain away and I would be just another victim.
This holistic attitude of accepting everything I experience as my own projection has empowered me so greatly that, despite continuing ups and downs, I feel I am now on the right path up the mountain. That said, I send you greetings from Arunachala, the sacred hill of pure consciousness that vows to burn down our ego so we can experience our immortal and blissful Self!