I read a lot of nonfiction books; lately I have been interested in “self-help” books. Books that help me become better, happier, more content, more confident, etc. But while I am momentarily drawn in, I forget them within a couple of weeks.
However, I never forget the lessons that I have learned from people. Here is one of my most memorable.
Back in the late 80’s, I left Bell Labs for AT&T International to satisfy a desire for global travel. I was a mid-level manager and surprised to find that one of my colleagues in her late 40’s was at the same level. I assumed that she had been passed over for promotions and had accepted that this was the highest level that she would achieve.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My colleague was in her fourth year of starting over. She explained that her husband, who was President and CEO of a large corporation, left her and took everything. Until then she had lived an exciting life as an executive’s wife. She hosted large parties, traveled the world in a private jet, enjoyed decorators, gardeners, and cooks…a country club life.
She and her husband met in college, got married after graduation and her role was to help him move up the corporate ladder. Then one day, her husband announced that he was leaving her for his assistant…and that he was completely broke. She was blindsided. When she asked how he could have cheated on her, he laughed and told her that he had hundreds of dalliances during their 20-year marriage. Bewildered, in shock and broken, she accepted the divorce, moved out of the home, and in her forties, began her search for her first job.
The woman that I met was upbeat and positive, looking forward to her career. I asked her why she wasn’t angry, why she didn’t feel betrayed. She replied that at first, she did, especially after she discovered that he had hidden their assets. But she quickly realized that her anger was only hurting her; wanting revenge would not hurt him, as he had expensive lawyers at his disposal; and would only prevent her from moving forward. Forgiveness was her only reasonable option.
I was amazed by her calmness. But it was genuine, and pretty soon her ex-husband and even his new wife were calling her for marital advice. She graciously listened and gave advice when she could. I was incredulous, but she explained that he was the father of their son and she wanted to make sure that they could co-parent effectively.
Eventually her ex-husband, realizing his mistake, left his second wife and begged her to come back. She declined.
“Didn’t that feel good, to be validated?” I asked.
“Not at all. I have moved on,” she explained. “I don’t want that old life back. I want him to be happy, but I don’t want to be in his life anymore.”
Her ex was convinced that she was “punishing” him and pursued her with an intensity that only a high-level executive can. Yet, she stayed firm and gently redirected his interest.
She went on to have a great career, becoming the director of Public Relations for Asia. We are still in touch today. Her ex is still pursuing her (despite having ended yet another marriage).
I think about all the people who I have met who are angry or bitter and the countries and religions that still feud over past wrongs. Stuck in anger, they cannot move forward. I also reflect on the grace of people who have practiced forgiveness and how their lives have become larger.
Nelson Mandela believed that forgiveness was the most powerful tool in our arsenal.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.