I stumbled onto a quote last night by our 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower, which not only expresses much of the essence of this sagacious and woefully underrated statesman but also provides timeless advice for the rest of us: “Never waste a minute thinking about people you don’t like.”
There was a time in my life when I did — far more than a minute, far more than an hour. Sometimes I spent a large part of the day fulminating about one individual.
It was a deep-seated enmity that began building up after I started my job at the impressionable age of 23 as a Cooperative Extension specialist on a large land-grant university campus. This animus, which started slowly and built into a red-hot rage over several years, was directed against my department head, someone who, frankly, had no business being the department head of anything. On top of his rank incompetence, he was an immensely vain, self-serving and deeply embittered man.
In addition to his incompetence, he worked tirelessly to prevent several employees from pursuing additional education in their free time. And to top it off, he capped many of our salaries, which resulted in my being further out of equity than any faculty member in the system.
We were not the only ones in on the secret. Virtually everyone in the organization, not just those in our department, were fully aware of all of this. They knew the guy for what he was: a pariah. Over the years, many of them expressed sympathy for our plight, acknowledging that working in that environment, enduring all that incompetency and abuse, amounted to an act of almost superhuman perseverance.
I will always appreciate that. It provided a small measure of consolation.
For me, what made all of this all but unbearable was that he, in spite of all this legendary incompetence and unadulterated meanness, was untouchable. A decade or so earlier, he had instigated a federal lawsuit against my university that turned out to be a landmark case in USDA legal history. I could explain the significance of all that but as I’ve pointed out many times before to family and friends, explaining the nuances of Cooperative Extension is like trying to impart the complexities of the old British Commonwealth to political novices. Suffice it to say that the results of this lawsuit kept him firmly entrenched in Extension ranks — and, worst of all, in our department — for almost two decades.
He retired more than fifteen years ago and is now deceased. I’ll never forget the incredulity that came over me when I learned that he was retiring. I think I have a faint idea of how the Bergen Belsen inmates must have felt when they caught their first glimpse of British tank turrets through the trees.
But I should not speak ill of the dead. I say all this not to condemn this long departed old man but to bewail my own foolishness and to impart a lesson to anyone who will listen.
In the cource of ranting and raving about that man day in and day out, I expended energy, precious energy, wasted energy. I even wondered a time or two if all the energy I invested in hating that man shaved time off my life. In fifteen years, largely through eating out of frustration, I went from an upbeat, lean young man of 170 pounds to a cynical, burned out and chunky middle-aged man of 220 pounds. The cigarette habit I had developed and dropped in graduate school returned with a vengeance.
“Keep this up,” my physician told me, “and you’ll soon be a train wreck waiting to happen.”
More than once I would rant about this man over the phone to my father, long retired and far removed from the hassle of the work place.
“Son,” he inevitably would advise, “I’ve been around scores of jackasses like him. But I can promise you that when he leaves, you won’t give him a minute’s thought, and there will come a day when you realize that all this time spent complaining about him was time better spent on something else.”
That day came many years later. And it’s come as a bitter realization. All that time I spent ranting about that “ignorant, incompetent SOB!” — all those times I retreated into my bedroom after a long day to sulk over my being in the professional sewer because of him — was time spent away from my wife and kids, time that could have been invested in reading to them, watching them grow up, lending a sympathetic ear, assuaging hurt feelings, all those things a father is supposed to do.
Much of that time also could have been spent learning new things and seeking other opportunities for personal growth, all of which easily would have taken my mind off of him and the misery he caused around the office.
And you know the worst thing of all? He knew about my enmity for him. And I suspect he knew how much time I invested day in and day out denigrating him. And I have little doubt that he took immense pleasure knowing all the personal grief he was causing me and others.
Simply put, he got the last laugh.
Borrowing from T.S. Elliott, the realization has occurred to me in advanced middle age that life is a series of moral lessons served in teaspoon-full helpings.
Yes, I’ve learned a valuable life lesson from all of this. I just wish like hell I had learned it sooner – about 20 years sooner.