Friday, March 22, 2019

Pandora's Box


One of humanity’s oldest stories about hope comes from the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. The name “Pandora” means “all-giving.” Like the Trojan Horse, Pandora and her container challenge our ideas about choosing tasteful presents.

Although there are multiple versions of the Pandora story, they all begin the same way. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. Mankind must therefore be punished. According to one account, the Olympian gods created Pandora as the first human woman in retaliation for Prometheus’ crime. Cunningly, the gods gave Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus as his wife. Introducing females ruined the prior bro paradise. Just like in the Garden of Eden.

In other versions of the Pandora myth, the gods' booby-trapped gift to Epimetheus’ household is not Pandora herself, but rather a jar (later mistranslated as “box”) marked “DO NOT OPEN.” As with Genesis, later authors blamed the wife for opening it.

Out poured all manner of mortal evils:  pain, sickness, death, greed…. When Pandora looked at the bottom of the jar, only one thing was left. Unlike Adam and Eve, Pandora and Epimetheus didn’t find knowledge as a consequence of their disobedience. Instead, humans got hope.

For most readers, the gods’ inclusion of hope among all those troubles represents a positive outcome:  the lemonade making the most of a bad situation, or even the silver lining that ultimately redeems Pandora’s choice. 

Since the ancient Greeks, however, a vocal minority has drawn the opposite lesson from Pandora’s story. The Greek word translated as “hope” could also mean “deceptive expectation.” Hope was the cruelest of the gods’ gifts to humanity.  

Lately I find myself in the anti-hope camp.


As a person, I’m a big believer in redemption. As a lawyer, not so much.

This skepticism comes from decades of practical experience. Attorneys who focus on litigation rather than transactions are never in the room when everyone is popping the champagne over their amazing deal. Instead, the deal has already imploded by the time we arrive. At this point disaster is inevitable, and everyone hates each other. Nevertheless, your clients still suffer from an unhealthy degree of delusional nostalgia for what might have been. The result tends to be the same, regardless of whether the failed transaction involved Microsoft and Boeing, small business partners, spouses, or college friends renting a house together.

I’m a proud English Major. But if I were embarking on a pre-law university course today, I’d definitely get at least a minor in psychology. As my law license says, I’m an “Attorney & Counselor.” It turns out a huge chunk of practicing law actually involves helping your clients process their grief, anger, and denial. When new clients walk into your office, they tell you their ideal outcome would be to put things back together – to stay in that business partnership, fix that toxic workplace, or teach that freeloading housemate to do dishes. (At this stage, clients alternate dreams of reconciliation with fantasies of brutally crushing their estranged partner/boss/roommate.) 

Eventually, your clients gain a more realistic and healthy perspective. Hopefully you can resolve the legal part of their problem before they realize a real therapist would be much cheaper.


In contrast with my mostly managed anxiety, I’ve personally experienced major depression only a couple of times:  thirty years ago at Brigham Young University, and a couple of years ago at the nadir of my struggle with discriminatory and hostile employers at the Washington Attorney General’s Office

Both times my mind responded to traumatic life events with sustained anhedonia, destructive impulses, and inexplicable behavior. My reaction was out of proportion to actual events, horrific as they were. Both attacks left me beyond the reach of reason because they exceeded the capacity of my mechanisms for coping with grief and stress.

In hindsight, I realize my more recent suicidal episode resulted from blindingly cruel hope.  

Almost thirty years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, implicit and explicit bias still plagues many workplaces. After I had my first appalling encounter with the AGO’s inept middle managers in January 2016, I correctly predicted exactly what would eventually happen. But this was my dream job. These people were breaking the law. I thought if I explained things clearly enough, someone would figure out a way to fix the situation. Unfortunately, everything I tried just made things worse. As the weeks went by, I became increasingly stressed. By the time I hired an experienced employment attorney in March, I’d completely lost my perspective about essential aspects of my case. I’d become a “client.”

For six weeks, the lawyer representing the AGO absolutely - and illegally - refused to respond to my attorney's inquiries. After they fired me, my lawyer kept trying to engage them in a meaningful dialogue. The lawyers from the AGO stalled. (Meanwhile the AGO also managed to mess up my family’s health insurance benefits for months, but that’s another story.) The combination of PTSD and anxiety pushed my stress levels beyond the capacity of even my overdeveloped coping mechanisms. The pressure continued accelerating. At some point I crossed the line to suicidal depression. As the weeks went on, I fell further into the depths.

Despite my attorney’s sensible evaluation of the situation, I insisted that we push for me to be reinstated in my position. As with my landslide-battered dream house on Whidbey Island, I couldn’t let go of my Bellingham dream job. In contrast with the house, however, I kept trying long after any reasonable person would have called it quits. By the time of the mediation, I was approaching rock bottom  completely deranged by the dissonance between my delusion and reality.

We finally mediated my claims against the State at the end of October. Of course my reconciliation proposals went nowhere. Instead, with the help of the mediator and my patient attorney we reached agreement on the basic terms of a settlement agreement, and then tied up the various loose ends over the next few weeks.

The most interesting part of the mediation experience was observing how the fog of my depression lifted almost immediately afterwards, and never returned. Without the burden of delusional hope, I could finally begin the long process of recovery.



I recently read Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning. The first part of the book is a quiet yet riveting account of his years in Nazi extermination camps. In the second partFrankl outlines his psychiatric approach of “logotherapy.” In contrast with his Viennese colleagues Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, Frankl identified the drive to find meaning in life as our fundamental motivating force – rather than a will to power or a will to pleasure. 

In 2017, Canadian writer Emily Esfahani Smith published The Power of Meaning:  Crafting a Life that Matters. According to Smith, 

One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise, and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts…. Mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life.  

In particular, numerous academic studies – as well as my own personal experience – demonstrate the value of journaling and other story-telling techniques for treating a wide variety of mental disorders. As Smith notes, “this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or cognitive-behavioral therapy.” 


On the other hand, some of the stories we tell ourselves are toxic. This week the New Yorker published a profile of English Professor Lauren Berlant from the University of Chicago. In 2011, Berlant published Cruel Optimism, which the New Yorker describes as “a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed”:

The persistence of the American Dream, Berlant suggests, amounts to a cruel optimism, a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” We are accustomed to longing for things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes or cake. Perhaps your emotional state is calibrated around a sports team, like the New York Knicks, and despite hopes that next season will be better you vaguely understand that you’ll be let down anyway. But our Sisyphean pursuit of the good life has higher stakes, and its amalgam of fantasy and futility is something that we process as experience before we rationalize it in thought. These feelings, Berlant says, are the “body’s response to the world, something you’re always catching up to.”


Hope should be like a stretch goal.

In nonprofit fundraising circles, whenever you plan your annual campaign you try to set realistic financial goals. First the program people tell you want they want to do with the money you raise. Then you examine your existing donor base, review the past performance of your events, grant-writing, and other outreach efforts, and the team brainstorms about other potential sources of income. When everyone agrees on prudent expectations, you adopt a budget that includes responsible revenue and expense assumptions. 

When you're done with the the budget process, you can have fun dreaming about your “stretch goals.” They’re firmly grounded in reality. But you’re not going to run out and hire a bunch of new staff based on the hope that you’ll reach all of your most optimistic targets. (I understand the same principle applies to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and weightlifters, but I've never been part of either scene.) Don't undermine your focused campaign with numerous hair-brained schemes. Buying lottery tickets is fine for amusement, but not as a budgeting or retirement strategy. 

Over the years I’ve been accused of being a grumpy pessimist just about as often as I’m called a wide-eyed idealist. Both are true. By nature and legal training, I compulsively search for potential problems. At the same time, I can’t help believing in a place called hope. 



Previously in Rock Bottom Stories: “Happy Holidays

Up next: “What Matters”


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