I first encountered Bob in junior high. He was an English teacher, and, although I never had him in class, I distinctly recall his smile. I would discover that his wife had been my first grade teacher, and, in later years, I would occasionally encounter Bob and his wife at my best friend’s house, as the families were close. I always enjoyed seeing them, and I always noted his smile. He always struck me as a jolly fellow. And, so, when I learned a few days ago that he had taken his own life after suffering from severe depression, the reality stood in stark contrast to my image of him.
When the Chief Judge asked me to stop by his office before I left for the day, I didn’t think anything of it. I worked closely with him, and I knew he respected my work. It was 2007, and, while things at home had been utterly abysmal, my career was beginning to take off. When I stopped by on my way out, though, the look on his face betrayed that it wasn’t a work matter. “I have to ask; if I didn’t, I’d kick myself,” he started. “Is everything okay? You really haven’t been yourself lately.”
Inside the following seconds, I realized that my home life drama was unintentionally spilling over into my work life. My months-long effort to hide any trace of the fact that I was dealing with my then-partner’s confession of a lengthy affair had been far less successful than I had imagined. Who else knew? How does he know? What have I done wrong at work? I wrestled with those questions and more, all while trying to maintain a blank expression that wouldn’t further confess my suffering. “Really? Huh. Everything’s fine. Maybe I’ve been going at it too hard. Sorry about that,” I replied, or something to that effect. Honestly, he didn’t seem too convinced, but I think he was wise enough to play along, knowing he had expressed his concern and opened a door that I could walk through anytime I wanted. We exchanged some more pleasantries, surely, and I walked out to my car, upset at myself for not being able to handle everything privately and even more upset that my partner had caused yet more disturbance in my life.
Seven years after that moment in the Chief Judge’s office (and six years after I transferred out of that office), I stood at the end of a long hallway in a conference hotel. There to present on some legal issue or another, I found myself frozen, as I spied the Chief Judge twenty yards from me, his unmistakable silver hair and trademark plaid shirt giving himself away. He couldn’t see me, but I was instantly transported back in time to that moment in his office. The moment he had seen right through me and reached out in concern. My instinct was to go up to him and admit my subterfuge, to tell him that he had been right, to let him know that I was dealing was some really awful stuff all those years ago, and to acknowledge that his small kindness of checking on me had always stayed with me. For him, perhaps, it had simply been a friendly inquiry. For me, I would tell him, it was a wake up call, as well as a reminder of the power of simply caring enough to ask, genuinely, how someone is doing. I wanted to say all that to him, right there in the conference hotel, between the long lectures, complimentary hotel mints, and bored attendees. But I couldn’t. Despite my best intentions to come clean, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to go back to that time and place, even it was just to acknowledge it. I took the easy way out, lurked in the shadows behind him, and dodged any interaction. He deserved more.
In partial repayment for the Chief Judge’s kindness, I’ve found myself relaying that story more than once to colleagues and subordinates over the years, as we chat across my desk. That brief moment taught me that I want to be the kind of coworker that genuinely cares about the folks that work with him. More importantly, though, it taught me that everyone carries around their pain, no matter how well they hide it. It’s made me more sympathetic and empathetic when I encounter folks in my life that are, obviously, having a bad day. A bad week. A bad month. I’ve been there, and I know that, try as we might, we can’t always slap on a happy face and pretend bad stuff isn’t happening.
Over the past few days, I’ve come back to those lessons as I think about Bob. This jovial, gregarious person in my mind, gripped by something unreachable, despite all the Chief Judges in the world. We never truly know the burdens those around us carry; our snap judgements, for good and ill, can’t do justice to the deeper waters running through all of us. It’s a reality that counsels love, kindness, and forgiveness, not in a sappy greeting card way, but rather with the wisdom and humility to recognize the complex fragility of life.