Perseverance: Fellow travelers

This line from a Jackson Browne song often goes through my head:  “And when the morning light comes streaming in, I’ll get up and do it again.  Amen.”

Getting up and doing it again is the hallmark of the hero. In the folklore of a hundred cultures across time and space, it is what distinguishes heroes who succeed from those who fail.

Three examples from the ancients: Odysseus spent 10 years fighting in the Trojan War and 10 more getting back, overcoming obstacle after obstacle, arriving on the shores of his beloved Ithaca with nothing more than the rags he was wearing, and then finding his journey far from over. The Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree until at last he found the root of suffering and how we can liberate ourselves from it, thereby achieving enlightenment. Moses led the Jews out of enslavement in Egypt – and then guided them for 40 years in the desert, knowing that he would not, himself, be joining them in the Promised Land.

Even the TV shows that my generation grew up with instilled perseverance. Sherlock Holmes labored ceaselessly to solve every crime presented to him and the redoubtable Dr. Watson, no matter how complex. Dr. Richard Kimble, in The Fugitive, never abandoned his quest for the one-armed man who killed his wife. Episode after episode, the intrepid crew of Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before. Hogan’s Heroes never ceased in their efforts to break out of Colonel Klink’s POW camp. Jason McCord, “scorned as the one who ran” in Branded, never flagged in his effort to clear his name.

In modern times, we have stories such as that of Mohandas Gandhi, who led his people into independence from British rule, and of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years as a political prisoner and, after his release, becoming South Africa’s first black president and ending apartheid. All around us, integral to our way of life, is the output of diligent researchers, scientists, and inventors whose discoveries were possible only because they persevered.

Movies, TV shows, books, and the heroic stories of real people continue to extol perseverance. The question for many of us facing daunting challenges, however, is how do we persevere?

The answer is demonstrated by nearly every hero’s journey. Though they may begin their journeys alone, heroes pick up advisors and companions along the way without whom they could not complete their missions.

I experienced the value of a team approach to perseverance most vividly following the theft, by attorneys who had represented me in a medical malpractice trial, of the award I had won. After months of misdirection, I finally received verification from the defendant’s insurance company that my award had been issued months before. My attorneys’ many excuses for why I had not received my share were all fabrications.

Holding in my hands a photocopy of the check I had never received, the check I had believed would change my life, the magnitude of the shift in my reality began to sink in. I’d thought I had reached my own Promised Land, but now I understood that this vision was a mirage. Bewildered, angry, and despairing, I called my girlfriend. “I need a smart guy who hates lawyers,” I told her. “I need the Angel of Death.”

The next morning, I went out for breakfast. Sitting at a table in the corner was my commuting buddy, Ted. It occurred to me that if the Angel of Death was not available, Ted would do just as well.

Ted was a former attorney and a bitterly humorous man. He had gone through his own legal debacle and as a result had quit the profession. On our occasional commutes to Boston, we had exchanged tales of woe and fantasized about retribution, mine against doctors and his against lawyers. At one point we briefly collaborated on screenplay for a movie we wanted to call Kill All the Doctors and Lawyers.

Ted gestured for me to join him. I briefly updated him on what I had found out. He swept his cup and plate aside, wiped the table free of crumbs with his hand, and spread a paper napkin out in front of him. Fishing a pen from my shirt pocket, he drew a small box at the top of the napkin. In it he wrote my name. “You’re the general,” he said. He gave me a wry smile and winked. “Or the commander-in-chief, if you prefer.”

In the next few minutes, he mapped out for me a command structure, a plan of action, and a methodology for carrying it out, rapidly sketching boxes, labeling each of them, and drawing connecting lines back to the one with my name in it.

I would, he explained, assemble and lead the team. “The idea is, you break the problem down into components, and you give each guy a piece of it. Then you go after all of them. You don’t know which one is going to work, but it doesn’t matter as long as some of ‘em do. And you control the flow of information.”

The complexity of what Ted was laying out overwhelmed me. “I don’t know if I can do all this,” I said. “I’m a writer, not a ‘general.’ Or even a lawyer.”

Abruptly softening his demeanor, Ted calmly, firmly replied, “David, I know it seems hard, but you’re a smart guy, and that’s all it takes. That, and leg work.” He smiled. “Plus, I can be in the background, show you how to snipe at them.” He raised his right hand and gestured around the room, pointing his finger like a gun. “They’ll never see it coming.” He chuckled. “You’ll have ‘em killing each other before the whole shooting match is over.”

After breakfast, we walked back to my apartment. On the way, we ran into a neighbor. I told her what had happened. “You know,” she said, “I’ve got a friend who might be able to help you out. His thing is investment and banking law, but he knows everybody. I’m seeing him tomorrow. I’ll give you his number and let him know you’ll be calling.”

Ted and I exchanged a knowing glance. “That would be terrific,” I said. And so the campaign began.

Over the next two years, I carried out the plan Ted had diagrammed on The Napkin (as we came to call it). In the end, it took several attorneys, a Manhattan assistant D.A., numerous detectives, and many others to bring my trial attorney and his partner to justice, but eventually both were disbarred and sentenced to long prison terms, and most of their 50+ victims were reimbursed by the New York State Client Protection Fund.

Like the heroes of myth, legend, television, and movies, as we traverse difficult times, we all need advisors and companions.

When I work with clients, I serve as a trusted advisor. Like Ted did for me that Saturday morning, I help them break their problems into smaller, more manageable pieces and map out a plan for how to solve them. Often, this involves creating an organizational chart similar to the one Ted drew for me on The Napkin. We create placeholders for support positions, assign a part of the problem to each placeholder, and then figure out, together, how to populate that chart. Sometimes, candidates are readily available. People in recovery from addiction have 12-step groups. Support groups exist for divorce, depression, grief, medical illnesses, and many other tribulations. Some find support in their churches, temples, clubs, and other social and spiritual groups. Sometimes, support teams must be created ad hoc.

As Ted guided me, I guide clients, often continuing on in the background, helping with course corrections as needed. But my most significant role is simply to encourage them, regardless of the challenges they face, to get up and do it again.


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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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