We want what we don’t have, and we take for granted the things we already have.
Lawyers suffer from this affliction, maybe more than most. We’re never satisfied. For example, we either have too many clients or too few. We feel unappreciated by our clients or our families. We whine about mistreatment by our opponents and surly judges. It explains why many seek the “equanimity” of the bench: “If only I didn’t have clients and pressing deadlines… then I’d be happy.” It also explains why I often hear about the anticipated ecstasy of someone’s upcoming retirement.
But there is another option.
A farmer once sought the advice of the Buddha. The farmer had many complaints about his life. His crops often failed because the weather was either too wet or too dry. Also, his wife and children failed to appreciate him. Adding to those gripes, the farmer noted his neighbors incessantly spread gossip and lies about him.
After finishing his list of complaints, the farmer implored the Buddha for help. Instead, the Buddha told him he couldn’t help. The Buddha said that all human beings have 83 problems, and that is just the way things are. While you can always solve a few problems, others will soon pop up and take their place.
Upon hearing this, the irritated farmer asked, “If this is the case, what is the good of all your teaching?”
The Buddha patiently replied, “While I can’t help you with the 83 problems, maybe I can help with the 84th.”
“What’s that?” the farmer asked.
“The 84th problem,” the Buddha said, “is that you don’t want to have any problems.”
Then I’ll Be Happy
Many live their lives dreaming about some future event that will provide lasting fulfillment. Tara Brach refers to this as the perpetual state of “…and then I’ll be happy.” If and when the desired event does happen, you’ll be happy for a few minutes or days, and then your life takes over again. Your newfound happiness is impermanent and will soon be replaced with new laments.
We see this in the divorce arena every day. People think they’ll find happiness in a new relationship, but they quickly realize the grass isn’t greener.
The truth is that striving to avoid the difficulties of the profession (and life generally) doesn’t work. It leaves us in a permanent state of illusion, burning our days fantasizing about a future of infinite peace and happiness.
It’s not reality.
Stop Kidding Yourself
Instead of living in the future, accept your life in the present. Rather than yearning for a magical end to your suffering, look for opportunities for joy and contentment with things as they exist NOW.
A ruling didn’t go your way… an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and improve. A client is annoying… be grateful you have clients; many lawyers don’t. Your opponents are unbearable… what a great opportunity to test yourself and your self-control.
Epictetus, the great Greco/Roman Stoic, observed that every situation has two handles, and it is your choice which handle to grab. Choose wisely. Grab the handle that creates a narrative of opportunity rather than one of suffering.
We all have struggles and problems, that is the nature of life. There is no easy way out of here. Once you accept that––the Buddha’s 84th problem, so to speak––you can use your troubles to improve your life and practice.
While I know its trite, be grateful for what you have rather than pining for what you don’t have. Zen Master Henry Shukman, in his book “One Blade of Grass,” observes, “I had learned that the secret to a happy relationship was not believing that it must be with the right person, but your partner was the right person.”
Same with your career.