Frog in the Pot

Posted on November 20, 2014

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The Frog

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind, nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2: 11

“I flourished in my humble trade.  My reputation grew.  The work devoured my waking hours, but when my time was through, the reward of all my efforts: my own limited company…Take care of those you call your own and keep good company.”  Brian May, Good Company

“Bank job in the city.  Robin Hood, William Tell, Ivanhoe, and Lancelot, they don’t envy me.”  Jeff Lynne, I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

“This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker.”   With apologies to T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Someone recently sent me a link to an article titled, “Man Tells Heartbreaking Story Of How He Realized He Wasted His Life.”  You may go check it out yourself (http://elitedaily.com/news/world/man-writes-about-wasting-life/841316/), but here is the short version.  A 46 year old man is coping with the end of his marriage (his wife has been having an ongoing affair for 10 years), being emotionally disconnected from his son (“my son feels nothing for me”), and missing his father’s funeral in favor of working at a bank job with work hours 9-7, six days per week.   He is distraught to realize how far his life has diverged from his dreams of travel, writing a novel, and helping people.  His deepest distress is from feeling that he has been “dying inside” and that he has wasted his life.

Workaholism is a phenomenon that in many ways is rewarded.  I remember an old parable about putting a frog in a pot of hot water.[1]  As the story goes, if you put a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, the frog will immediately leap out, and thus, save itself.  If you put the frog in cold water and gradually increase the heat, the frog will stay in the pot until he dies from the heat.  Workaholism can be like that.  If the job started out requiring almost all of your waking hours, you wouldn’t do it.  But as you gain success, your earnings go up, you get praise within the organization, and you are gradually willing to give more and more of yourself for the company.  After a time, you find that you are that frog, boiling to death.

A Little Self-Disclosure

“At the end of your life your relationships are all you’ve got…Love to me is when you walk out on that one more thing and say, ‘Nothing will come between me and you.’”  Sara Groves, One More Thing

Usually when a therapist tells a story about himself or herself in session, they start the story with “I knew someone once.”  Then they can get around to “I wonder what would happen if you did x.”  Let’s skip that.  I am going to talk about me.

I too worked in banking for 25 years.  I started at age 21 and left at age 47.  During the first half of that career, I was the frog in the pot.  Being a workaholic can be seductive.  The more time you put in, the better you perform.  Your compensation goes up.  People say great things about you.  Wherever you go, people genuflect and kiss the ring.

A guy I knew who was the president of a successful company lamented to me about not getting any respect when his family of origin visited over Christmas.  I told him you will always be bigger than life to your employees, life size to your wife, and smaller than life to the family you grew up in.

When you are a workaholic, you are bigger than life at work, but only life size at home.  It is easy for work to be the affair partner, the competing attachment that takes you away from your spouse and family.

I was fortunate.  I got caught up in a reorganization and my job was eliminated at the height of my success.  This created a paradigm shift for me.  I realized you may love the company, but the company will not love you back.  That’s what family is for.  After this epiphany, I worked another 13 years in banking, but I was never willing to sacrifice marriage and family over it again.  A boss with whom I had a good working relationship once asked me if the job could get higher than 3rd or 4th priority with me.  I told him no, but that I would continue to give him an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Grief and Depression

“I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage of all that I wanted from life.”  Al Stewart, If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It

“All these comings and goings that cut like a knife, these small simple pleasures that make up a life, a man needs a home and a child and a wife to always be there…Oh Lilah, to sleep like a baby again.”  Don Henley, Oh Lilah

Let’s return to the man who is coping with feeling he “wasted his life.”  With all of the stressors he is under, a depressed mood is an expected response.  It is important, though, to differentiate grief from depression.  Early on, the symptoms can be very similar.  There are definitely some losses to be grieved here.  Discovering that your partner has been having an affair for 10 years is traumatic.  This situation, in addition to the pain and sadness, is probably very lonely.  Feelings of hopelessness may also be overwhelming and can make it hard to even imagine that there is a way forward, much less be able to see what the way forward might be.

William Worden identified four tasks of mourning.  I think it is fairer to call them processes, in that they are not something you just check off, but rather you work through them.  These processes are not binary (it is not that you have either done them or you haven’t, but are in process) and they are not linear (you work your way forward while sometimes getting knocked back).

Worden’s tasks are (as paraphrased by me)

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss.
  2. Working through the pain of the loss.
  3. Adapting to the new environment (in the case of a death this is adapting to the environment that the person who died is no longer a part of).
  4. Redefining the relationship and finding your way forward.

This is the normal process of working through grief.  Grief is painful.  There is no easy way around it.  You could choose to stay stuck on this side of it, but to get past it, you need to walk through it.

Depression has some similarities, but it is a different animal.  If you have a depressed mood most of the day every nearly every day for two weeks or longer and/or are no longer able to take pleasure in activities that previously were enjoyable, you could be looking at depression.  Other symptoms may include poor sleep or excessive sleep, significant increase or decrease in appetite, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, thoughts of death, and irritability.  I share these not so that you can self-diagnose, but so that you might seek help.  Depression often has a biological component which can make it difficult (or impossible) to overcome without proper treatment.  Both grief and depression can benefit from counseling.

YAHOO

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” Joel 2:25

“I understand that I’m on a road where all that was is gone.  So where to now, St. Peter.”  Bernie Taupin, Where to Now, St. Peter

“And though the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it’d be easier some times to change the past.”  Jackson Browne, Fountain of Sorrow

If I did not believe that people were capable of making positive changes, I would be in a different line of work.  A friend of mine uses the acronym YAHOO in a management context.  I think it applies here as well for reevaluating one’s life.  YAHOO stands for You Always Have Other Options.

It is natural when coping with a devastating loss (or losses) to feel like you are out of options.  For the man who is grieving his “wasted life” at 46, an average life expectancy would give him 30 years to live.  You can still be the hero in your own story.  You may or may not want to save your marriage at this point, but you could try that.  Failing that, you could work through your anger and hurt with your wife and your disappointment with yourself as a husband.  You could rebuild your relationship with your son.  You could change to a career that might be more rewarding.  You could work as mentor to help others avoid the mistakes you have made.  You could downsize your lifestyle and make those trips you never made or serve the underprivileged like you always planned to do.  Finish your novel; it will be a much better read with the life experience you have gained.

This can be your wake-up call for your heroic journey.  All the great hero stories include the calling to adventure.  Get the help you need to grieve the losses, then become the man you always wanted to be.  You always have other options.  Best wishes on your healing journey.

[1] For the record, I do not know anyone who has ever conducted this experiment.  No SPCA complaints, please.

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Posted in: Grief, Relationships