Okay, so maybe despair is not totally avoidable. Maybe, in fact, pain and suffering are sometimes necessary on the journey toward a more positive future. Certainly, the happy ending in this blog post would not have happened without the spur — the gift, even — of a desperate situation. This is a story of tears, yes — followed by resilience, hard work, and the willingness to let go of plans and expectations to embrace new possibilities instead. In other words, hope, grounded in reality.
I have been reflecting on this episode from my younger days recently because despair is again nibbling at my heels. It is an altogether natural response to the loss of morality, truth, justice, decency, compassion, common sense, and even the barest hint of democracy among the GOP House and Senate thugs, and the wildly out-of-control Trump administration. Remembering the story below has beaten back the despair for now because it reminds me that 1) happy endings are still possible; 2) the dreadful awful terrible news of the moment may ultimately be a gift; and 3) we don’t know what the future holds.
An important caution: happy endings are by no means guaranteed, no matter how good we are or how diligently we strive for the best. Countless lives have already been grievously disrupted, or cut short, by the politics of class, hate, and exclusion which have turned our country into a dystopia. Doubtless, there will be enormous suffering, including deaths, before we turn this ship around. Still, ultimately, for those of us left standing when the sun shines again (which may or may not include me, or you), I have hope for a better future. It may well be that we collectively have to go through these dark times in order to do the work required to create a more just, happy, and sustainable future. In any case, we’re here now.
On a small personal scale, those are the messages from this true story — two stories, really — which played out more than 30 years ago.
ACT ONE: Getting and Losing My Dream Job
My first real post-college job was writing for a public television station continuity department. Think, “That’s Sesame Street, tomorrow afternoon at 4:00!” Because that position left me with extra time, not to mention un-tapped creative potential, I initiated various other projects, like producing filler videos for when shows ran short, and producing new station sign-on and sign-off videos. I loved producing, even at this very dysfunctional station. Hey, it was television! And public television at that, so I was on the side of angels…
One day, I was asked to be co-host and associate producer of a new public affairs program focused on women and minorities. Of course I said YES!! There were multiple catches. First, no raise. It wasn’t in the station’s budget, even though the male co-host and associate producer earned substantially more than me. Second, no title change. I was officially still just a continuity writer, because the Board never approved my position. Third, I still had to meet all my continuity department assignments — so I had considerably more work to do than my much higher paid co-host (who was a really nice guy). Not only that — both supervisors warned me that I had to do superlative work in each job, or, bye-bye co-hosting/producing dream job.
Great deal, right?? Still, I said yes.
The arrangement didn’t actually last all that long, maybe six months. Oh, I did superlative work, alright — and my family and I paid the price. The hours were long, the stress incredible. I kept asking, please, at least just give me a new title! But nothing. Just the admonition that, if I couldn’t keep up, I would be replaced.
Finally I decided to file a sex discrimination lawsuit. I was far from the only person at that station being treated poorly. The lawsuit beckoned my Don Quixote soul as a way to seek justice for myself and others. The lawyer told me I had a very strong case.
However, for better and for worse, I have always had a big mouth. Though I will never know exactly what happened, someone must have told station management about my lawsuit plans. Days before the suit was due to be filed, I was called into the president’s office. He told me, “It’s just not working out.” I knew it was because of the lawsuit; in fact, months later the president told me that I had actually been much better with the show than anyone expected. Even the day he delivered the devastating news of no more co-hosting and no more associate producing, he let me know I was still welcome to continue with the show as an assistant producer. I declined. My dream was shattered.
Hello despair. I went home and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. I stayed away from work for the next three days to grieve and weigh my options. The lawyer informed me, I no longer had a strong case. So I had these options: quit immediately, give two weeks notice, or hang in there until I had a better job. I chose number three. No running away for me. Not that I knew it at the time, but I now believe this resilience is one of the keys to hope: face the reality head-on, and then dig deep to work hard toward a better situation.
ACT TWO: Common Cause, more despair, and more resilience
It was another tough six months from February to the August date when I was offered, and accepted, a position as Assistant Director of Media Communications in the Common Cause national office in Washington, DC. By accepting that job, I let go of my plans to have a future in television, and opened myself up to a whole new career path — a decision I have never regretted. Also, I would never have sought the Common Cause job if I hadn’t been kicked off the show, so in retrospect, getting kicked off the show was a gift. Both of these feel like additional key aspects of hope: we can’t hold too tightly to our previous scripts. We must be willing to take risks, and find new openings. And, what appears to be misfortune in the moment may actually be a blessing.
Those last months at the station were, of course, challenging. I remember a few sour things about those months — like a few of my close friends at the station saying they were afraid to be publicly associated with me anymore — but other colleagues went out of their way to tell me how much they admired my strength. I even sometimes found joy in that workplace, and can fondly recall some special moments in those closing months.
Nonetheless, the day I resigned, I literally danced into my boss’s office and sang, “I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit.”
Not surprisingly, I arrived at Common Cause with a chip on my shoulder toward authority. I was thrilled to be there but was also too confrontational for the culture and well-entrenched hierarchy. Still, I was stunned when my boss told me there were problems with my job performance — problems significant enough to extend my three-month parole another three months. If I still couldn’t clean up my act … well, that alternative was unthinkable.
Again I went home, sobbed, and weighed my choices: a) hand in my two weeks notice or b) figure out just what I had to do to succeed, and friggin do it. I desperately did not want to fail again. And I had just uprooted my whole family to move to DC — a move none of them were happy about at that time. What real choice did I have? It took a bit of ranting and raving, but ultimately I chose b.
ACT THREE: Finally! My happy ending.
Thank god, and whoever or whatever gave me the capacity to do that work, I did do it. I succeeded. I loved Common Cause, the organization and the people — and they loved me. Common Cause was filled with the best and the brightest — people of integrity, ideals, brains, and high spirits — led by chairman and a true American hero Archibald Cox. Fred Wertheimer, who was president for the full six years I was at Common Cause, is a brilliant lawyer who could have made a fortune in the private sector but chose instead to devote his life to strategizing and lobbying for a better Democracy. I have so much love and admiration for both these men. Archie has passed away, but Fred is still at it. Talk about determination! Amazing.
It was an honor and a privilege to work there. The entire staff and extraordinarily dedicated volunteer corps worked hard — this time, truly on the side of angels — and we had fun, loads of it. Many of my lifelong friendships were born then, including, a bit of a shout-out: Karen Hobert Flynn, the current president of Common Cause.
To be clear, life at Common Cause was not fairy tale perfection. No, this was a real-life happy ending, the only kind we can possibly hope for. It was plenty good enough.
EPILOGUE: Now It’s All of Us
Today, the magnitude of the problem, the daily deluge of injustices — it’s breathtaking. Incomprehensible. A reality that is excruciatingly hard to face: we live in a country where it seems almost a crime to be poor, elderly, female, young, non-straight, Muslim, Jewish, an immigrant, in the media, disabled, and/or — especially, even — a person of color. It is not hyperbole to say Democracy is teetering on the edge of collapse. Even former President Barack Obama recently warned of Hitler-like symptoms in our current body politic.
And if that’s not frightening enough, thanks to climate change, our very survival as a species is threatened.
Still, we can only dare hope for a large scale happy ending if we first look reality square in the eyes. It is a very sob-worthy situation. And then, like that young woman who felt she had no choice but to fight like crazy to succeed at Common Cause, the answer to giving up or fighting back is painfully clear: there is no real choice. Failure is not an acceptable alternative. There will be no running away. We all simply must fight back.
There is plenty of room for hope. All around us, there is both good and evil. Certainly, this victory will be hard-earned, but we can do it! When you’re ready, put away despair (though you may visit it from time to time) and focus instead on doing what must be done. This is the fight of our lives, people. Though there are no guarantees, let’s aim together for that happy ending.
One final note. A few days ago I was asked, doesn’t all my resistance work get in the way of my happiness work? Heck no — this is my happiness work!