From the Wellcome Collection. Licensed by Creative Commons.
I recently talked with a young adult friend about difficulties she’s having at work, and ended up telling her about the most difficult experience I had in five decades in the workplace. I’ve decided to write out the story as a life episode that shaped me. It’s part of my life review. This account will be as vague and non-specific as I can make it; I won’t identify the institution or my main antagonist. The point of the post is not to cast aspersions on anyone but to add to the narrative of my life.
A couple decades ago I took a job in a small department headed by a man about my age (I’ll call him Dave). He told me even before I took the job that he had conflicts with higher management, and that proved to be even more true than what he intimated. I soon learned that he disdained everyone above him in the hierarchy and all but a small handful of colleagues at or below his level. There had been a good deal of turnover in the department; the one person who had been there a long time catered to Dave and made excuses for his overly forceful and demanding behavior.
Dave described himself as an idealist who had high standards; he was battling to make sure that things were done right. It soon became evident that in his eyes I wasn’t doing things right either. I listened and tried to do what he wanted, but I felt I needed to be true to my standards as well. We had some problems, but for a while he was busy fighting others so he didn’t pay much attention to me.
After a couple of years, the situation suddenly changed. Most higher-ups had minimized Dave’s behavior or were intimidated by his threats of lawsuits, regulatory complaints, and the like, so they pretty much avoided him. Finally, though, he directed accusations at a particular vice president who decided to take action. Dave couldn’t be fired, but could be removed as manager of the department, and that’s what happened. Guess who accepted the position of interim (later made permanent) department manager? Yeah, me. So one of the members of my department was the former manager, already highly contentious and hostile towards those in authority and now angry about being demoted. Not surprisingly, problems ensued.
From that point on I was challenged on most decisions. I was told I had extremely low standards that were turning the department into an embarrassment. I was repeatedly called a coward, a liar, and unethical. I was threatened and told I would be held accountable (though how was never clear). I reported all this to higher-ups, but the VP who had demoted Dave had left the organization and no one else was willing to do anything. They said I was doing a good job and supported how I was running the department, but the subtext was always that I had to deal with Dave myself.
Eventually, Dave stopped talking to me and would walk past me without acknowledging my existence. That was actually a relief. We still had to get work done, though, so there were email exchanges and department meetings. I came to dread those meetings. He was a bully, and I was afraid of him. But I wasn’t cowed into going along with his demands if I didn’t think they were in the best interests of the department or our clients.
After a few years, I realized something that probably should have occurred to me long before. As a Christian, I try to follow Christ’s instruction to love your enemies. The thing was, I had never had a real enemy before. Now I did. What a revelation! Dave had chosen to be my enemy, and what I needed to do was to love him.
So I tried my best. It’s hard to find ways to show love to someone who won’t acknowledge you, but I did find ways to make Dave’s life a little better. Previously, when others complained about him, I would join in, but I stopped doing that. When it was called for I even defended him. I prayed for him.
Eventually I left the job, though not to get away from Dave. I enjoyed other aspects of the job and found the work rewarding, so I stayed until something more important called me away. I think I left the department in better shape than it was when I came in. Clients and colleagues were complimentary. I was later told that I had gained a reputation as having more success than anyone at containing Dave’s mischief. I appreciated the compliment, but that’s not how it felt to me!
As hard as all this was, I’m certain that being in the situation benefited me. It helped me understand better what it means to love and challenged me to apply that in a very difficult situation. Also, my faith grew. At the hardest times, I had to ask myself whether I believed such verses as “I consider our present sufferings as not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) I decided that I did believe.
I became a better person by being tested in this crucible. The ancients recognized four cardinal virtues, virtuous characteristics that are foundational to all the others. They are courage, prudence (or wisdom), temperance (restraint or self-control), and justice. I had to exercise all of these with Dave, and through that practice they grew stronger. It took wisdom to decide the best course of action when I was under attack, restraint to keep my own anger or frustration from dictating my responses, and justice to treat Dave and others as fairly as I could. Of the four, the one I hadn’t had to exercise much before in my life was courage; I had mostly gotten along with people and hadn’t faced much hostility. Dave accused me of being a coward. Yet in the face of his threats and intimidation, tactics that Dave had used successfully in wearing down others, I stood my ground. Dave wasn’t trying to do me any favors, but his attacks ended up benefiting me. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but in retrospect I’m glad I had the experience. Thanks be to God for how he uses life’s hardships to help us grow!