Ten years ago, when September 11 became September 11, I felt that deep, shared national longing to find meaning in the senseless and horrific acts of violence. And, like so many, it motivated me to find more meaning in my own life. I was living in the D.C. area then, and was so struck by how gently we treated each other in the aftermath, with kindness and compassion. For about 2 weeks, anyway.

sad shopper sitting in park
All that post-September 11 bling, and still the sadness deepens.

Our leaders may have felt that longing to find meaning, too, but they caved instead to their many fears. We weren’t called upon to reflect on what had brought people to such a level of hatred. We weren’t asked to find a way to give meaning to all those deaths by being courageous ambassadors of peace and beacons of hope to the world—you know, living out the American ideals of democracy, tolerance and freedom? No, we were called upon to . . . shop.

Yeah, that was an effective way to heal spiritual wounds and honor the dead—get all materialistic. Worked like a charm, didn’t it? Because now, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, our country is a happy, peaceful, fulfilled place, and most of the world wants to be like us. (Insert irony emoticon here.)

Lawyers, Desperate To Numb Out

It amazes me how deeply embedded that response—pursuing solace through materialism—is embedded in our culture. After 10 years, it still hasn’t worked: We are a people in agony and with aching hearts right now:

  • from disconnection from our families, friends and neighbors,
  • from wounds inflicted by the dysfunctional, toxic workplaces we’ve created and chosen to inhabit, and
  • from lack of meaning and higher purpose in our lives and work.

Yet we don’t do the things that would heal those aches, wounds, and lacks. Instead, as Brene Brown says, we numb out. We use glittering new things; food; drugs and alcohol; and certainty. And they distract us for a while, but the ache still gets worse and then we need increasingly higher doses to numb the pain.

This numbing out is how we get a legal profession full of unhappy, nay, miserable people, wasting their real gifts in pursuit of dollars and a false security, neither of which will ever fill the gaping holes in their souls. We’ve been taught that we need to aspire first to financial security, in as safe a career as possible—one that allows us extravagant consumption, even by American standards, which are high indeed.

Ever notice how that prosperous, secure career also seems to require copious amounts of medications for anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, if not alcohol and illegal drugs, for a lot of lawyers simply to be able to stagger through the office door every day?

Conspiracy Theory Alert

So as the 10th anniversary of September 11 looms, I find myself wondering how the effing hell have we lost ourselves so badly. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might think that the 60s’ and 70s’ embrace of things weird, spiritual and non-materialistic threw the establishment into such a high-pitched frenzy that the fat cats had a summit. During that summit, aided of course by copious amounts of cigarettes, alcohol, Mary Jane and various hallucinogens, they hit on the perfect plan: Since religion isn’t opiating the masses any longer, let’s try substituting materialism.

To do that, they decided, we’ll supply lots of cool gadgets and toys, and get people hooked on designer labels and bling in general. We’ll have Martha show everyone how their own innate creativity isn’t good enough, and how they can be perfect, if they just buy the magazine/craft kit/pre-made “art,” rather than value the insight that goes along with imperfection and vulnerability of creating themselves.

The cherry on top? We’ll make them work longer and harder for the same amount of money. (Of course we will keep the extra money generated instead, rather than reward workers for their vastly increased productivity.) So, even ordinary folks will be forced to pay for people to prepare their food, clean their clothes and houses, walk their dogs, mow their lawns, and care for their kids and ailing relatives, since they’re too busy working to have time for that nonsense.

And, even better, by robbing people of their time to do all that, we’ll also take their time to reflect, to be part of their community, to stand up for what’s important and meaningful. We’ll do it by making them think that all the extra time in the office is worth it to have those 100-inch TVs, granite countertops, and devices that always tether them to the office and never let them have peace.

Conspicuous consumption and the consumerism, you have done your jobs well.

Guilty Lawyers

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, even though Dick Cheney and the Koch Brothers sometimes make it hard not to be one. But take away the fat cat summit and substitute personal choices and economic forces, and still we’re left with a society that is ruled by the extrinsic, the material. It’s made us miserable. The last decade has been nothing but fear on steroids. We had a choice after September 11 to invite meaning back into our lives, to act with courage, to lead, and we blew it.

Lawyers, not incidentally, blew it big time. Lawyers helped create the structure for legalized torture, for the financial house of cards that crashed in 2008, and the robo-foreclosure scandal, to name only a very few examples. Lawyers collectively have a lot of blood on their hands, and it’s time to stop bleating that we only give clients what they want. For the sake of money, we have forsaken our profession’s duty to be the voice of reason and ethics in dicey situations. And so lawyers, especially BigLaw lawyers, hate what they do, because they know they’re helping to grind someone down who has little ability to withstand the assault.

The great thing is, we are always in choice. We can choose to claim our courage, to lean into the discomfort of fear, to embrace meaning and purpose, and make changes in our lives, work and professions. It is not an easy road, but it is the one that leads to that highest and best of American ideals, freedom.

Get some today.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy lawyers reclaim the meaning in their lives. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com.