Monday, July 29, 2013

The Stream

I believe that no one or nothing is pure evil.

I believe that no one or nothing is pure good.

Every life, every event achieves a point of stasis on the good/evil spectrum and that point is subject to change.  Are you the "same person" as you were, say, twenty years ago?

Our being is subject to the eroding forces of the day-to-day, like a stone being moved by a stream from the mountaintop to the sea.  The stream of time inexorably compels us forward toward our destiny but every event, creature, obstacle and opportunity along the way serves to fashion us into the "us" we ultimately become.

The positives can be wonderful.  They are often the events that we consider the milestones of our life.

But it's the challenges that truly make us who we are.  Challenges are actually opportunities which allow us to choose the future path our life will take.

One of the most pivotal examples of this in my life occurred in my 20s.  I was an eager-beaver idealogue who believed that anything is possible (actually, I still believe that) with the right attitude, talent and perseverance.  I had been a Flight Attendant for a few years and thought my forward path should be in management.  So, when it was offered, I accepted the position of Inflight Supervisor.  What I didn't know but should have was that managing Flight Attendants is about as easy as herding cats!  There is some debate about my longevity in the job but it was either 87 or 88 days.  Why?

Because I encountered one of those life-altering erosive forces in that job.  The invincibility of youth simply was no match for the task of taking away the employment of another Flight Attendant, regardless of the odious circumstances that precipitated that action.

I had been tasked with the supervision of the Service Manager group, the onboard leaders of our workforce.  Theirs was a particularly precarious role because they were essentially Flight Attendants, like all others, with certain leadership responsibilities and accountabilities.  Flight Attendants are generally unaccustomed to direct, on-site supervision and were rankled by the concept.  The one in question felt as though a particular Service Manager was going to disclose to management his suspicion that she was stealing liquor and/or liquor money, so she took action.

In what was meant to be a pre-emptive strike, she participated in the fabrication and submission of a fake customer complaint against the Service Manager that she felt threatened her.  The complaint was detailed, specific and damning; it might have cost the Service Manager his position and ultimately his job. But by virtue of its detail, specificity and intent to damn, I called the veracity of the letter, which was received via the mail from a "customer", into question.  It took me three months to piece together what ultimately were the facts surrounding its production and submission and there was no question as to the outcome.  The Flight Attendant responsible would be fired.

And I was the one to do the deed!  I knew for approximately 2 weeks prior to her termination that the responsibility would be mine.  Honestly, I don't know how I got through it.  It affected my sleep and eating habits.  I was constantly anxious.  The thought of ending the career of a 23 year employee was all-consuming, regardless of the circumstances.  On the date of our meeting, I was a wreck.  There were 4 of us in that small, stark room that morning:  the Flight Attendant, her witness, my notetaker (and fellow, more tenured supervisor) and me.  The Flight Attendant asked as we got started if she could record our proceedings.  I wasn't sure but my notetaker said, "no".  I proceeded to read her letter of termination and when she realized what was happening, the Flight Attendant burst into a tirade of obscenities and threats. I was the focus of the tirade.  I was mortifed, although more for her than for me.  I remember looking at her witness who appeared to be in shock.  The rest is just a blur....

What resulted from that event was a 10 year "dark cloud" hanging over my life.  Through arbitration, the Flight Attendant was returned to work a few years later, in spite of the fact that we had proven the case against her.  She apparently took this as a positive sign and began legal proceedings against me and two others, in hopes of re-couping her financial losses.  She sued me!

Hour upon day upon week upon month upon year of consultations with attorneys, depositions, the contstant feeling of being unsettled, answering questions on mortgage forms about being "party to a lawsuit" left me feeling hung out to dry.  The company said that I was indemnified AS LONG AS no proof came to light that I had acted outside the scope of my supervisory responsibilities.  All the while, the Flight Attendant, having been returned to work, felt vindicated and vengeful.  She wasted no time telling her slanted side of the story to anyone who would listen.  Part of my indemnification was that I could not utter a word about the case, not even to defend myself.  It was hellish.

Ultimately, there was a jury trial held in state court in Honolulu.  It lasted +/- 8 weeks.  The result was that she lost, utterly.  I'm not sure what her attorney saw as a cause of action, she was as guilty then as the day she fomented her plan to have another employee fired.  Perhaps it was the lure of a huge corporation standing behind the defendants (me!) and the potential pot of gold at the end of that litigeous rainbow.  All I know is that one juror sustained me through the process.  One older, Asian lady who sat at the end of the back row gave me constant, reassuring eye contact throughout every day of that trial.  I don't know who she was but I would love to think she knew what her gesture meant to me during that awful process.

The culmination of testimony in that trial occurred when we returned from a lunch recess on what was to be the final day.  Large speakers had been setup in the 4 corners of the jury box.  When I asked our attorney what was going on, he replied that a recording had been made of the termination meeting and that the attorney for the plaintiff intended to play that recording for the jury.  I was gobsmacked!  I was about to relive the most traumatizing moment of my life in a court of law!  Our attorney asked if there was anything in that recording that he should know about.  What?!  I had done all in my power to minimize that event in my thoughts and memory in an effort at self-preservation.  What could I tell him now?

My anxiety was ill-founded.  My recorded voice was so weak as to be nearly inaudible.  My recitation of the termination letter was closer to a lament than a condemnation.  What did they hope to gain by playing my pitiful voice?

Then it came.  The moment in the recording when she launched into her tirade against me and mine.  It was truly awful!  But, on the whole, I suppose it was necessary.  It was almost as though divine intervention was serving to release me from my 10 years of bondage.  For in that terrible moment, I saw and heard myself for what and who I was in this event:  a pitiful pawn in life's chess game.

The Flight Attendant lost her case utterly.  The older, Asian lady-juror smiled at me and nodded as the verdicts (23 in all) were read:  "not guilty".  I was relieved, I was vindicated, I was transformed into the next iteration of Tony Reece, the one whose innocence and invincibility had been disproven by life's erosive forces.

I suppose that she, too was transformed in the process.  In the years since, I have had occasion to work with this Flight Attendant, often in the same cabin, working side-by-side.  My reaction?  "How awkward this must be for her!"  Her actions were those of a human being, doing what she thought was necessary to "survive".  At least, that's my account of it all.  Does it serve any purpose for me to remind her of those actions, to hold her up to public scrutiny for those actions, to hold it over her head like an ax, ready to fall?  I don't think so.

No one is all good.  No one is all bad.  Not her, not me and not you.  We are all trying to stay afloat on time's mighty stream.  When we bump into other people and objects on that journey, our shape, our constitution, our destiny is refined by the process.  I believe that we have some degree of input into how those erosive forces affect us and make us who we are meant to be.  Whether or not we exercise that input is our true measure.

Think about the path that led to the YOU of today.  Which events were more fundamental in affecting that YOU?  The easy ones or the difficult ones?  

I've had a few "life philosophies" ebb and wane in my 53 years: "everything is relative", "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger", etc.  But my favorite and the one that has had the most staying power is, "if life were easy, what would be the point?"  I suppose my philosophy has a rather eastern flavor because I see the point of life as being "enlightenment" more than "success" or "winning".  

For don't we all come to the same end?  If that is the case, how is one more successful than another?  Our end is our end.  The state in which we arrive there is the point of the exercise.

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