Is it possible to complain without whining?
Or as they say in the British detective novels I love to read, without “whinging.”
(The word “whinge” sounds just like it means, don’t you think? Perhaps we should campaign to adopt the word “whinge” instead of the word “whine” in the U.S.)
This week – when I should already be in full-on, pre-Thanksgiving mode, I am airing one small, dubiously whinge-worthy matter before moving on to the gratitude part.
The matter in question: my present status as a Volunteer compared to my prior status as a Law Partner.
Now, do not misunderstand. I am thrilled to be semi-retired and able to volunteer regularly, but I do miss some aspects of my former life as a DC law firm partner.
A tiny incident this week at a wonderful non-profit where I volunteer unsettled me.
I arrived early and saw a young staff person scurrying around busily to get ready for the workshop. I asked her if there was anything I could do to help, she said sure and handed me a big stack of charts fresh from the photo-copier.
Could I please arrange these papers in properly numbered order sets of 30 pages each and staple the packages together to distribute to the workshop participants?
Of course I could, happy to help. Truly I was. But then it hit me again, as I sat at the table in the non-profit’s meeting room, sorting through tall stacks of paper, putting them in numerical order, that I am no longer who I once was.
I am now a Volunteer. A Volunteer who collates. Assembles. Staples. Who does what is requested of him or her. No task too small. Without “whinging,” (except for here.) Volunteers serve to assist an organization to fulfill its’ mission. I feel very lucky to be part of this particular group.
Except that sometimes being a volunteer makes me feel as if I have shrunk as a person.
This small-staffed organization, like another for which I regularly volunteer, depends on its volunteers. I know these non-profits are very grateful for our participation. I also don’t expect to get a pat on the head every time I show up. I’m fine with pitching with the smallest of tasks that need to be done.
But I’m still dealing with that pesky shrunken person feeling.
Back in the “good old days”, the managing partner of my law firm relied upon a catchy phrase – each to his or her “highest and best use” – in deciding how to allocate legal work.
One of my law firm colleagues was a terrific negotiator so she was called upon to handle deals. An associate who was an excellent writer prepared briefs. I was considered very good at client service so I built solid client relationships. Each of us to our “highest and best use” – an approach which made for happy (relatively) lawyers and satisfied clients.
It is a sobering recognition to realize as a semi-retired person that I may no longer be sought out for my “highest and best use”.
It is not the status of being a lawyer that I miss, it is that sense of being fully utilized for what I can offer.
A few years before I left my law firm, stressed by the demanding hours and pace, I met with a career counselor who specialized in helping law firm lawyers transition to other careers. (Can you imagine? A flotilla of unsatisfied lawyers supports this career counselor specialty.)
She asked me about my non-legal experience; I told her I had done a significant amount of volunteer work over the years – on the board of my synagogue, chairing projects at my kids’ schools, facilitating a mental health group.
She suggested I try to become an executive at a non-profit. Important to be paid, she told me, expressing her strong belief that the most unappreciated people in any organization are its’ volunteers.
I never followed through on her career change advice. My cranky aortic valve forced an early instant retirement decision. Now I think of myself as a full-time writer and part-time volunteer. A volunteer who once was a lawyer, not a lawyer who volunteers on the side.
I disagree with the career counselor’s opinion. I do feel appreciated, needed, valued. Just in a very different way than how I felt at the law firm with clients who relied on me for advice. This is an adjustment I am still making.
It is up to me now – and me alone – to figure out my own “highest and best use.”
My legal training, my ability to issue-spot, to think critically and problem-solve will always be with me. And there are times when the volunteer work lets me bring my legal mind back from hiatus. But not always. That’s my new deal.
So I will now promptly stop whining – or whinging – about this small incident and get back to being thankful that I am able to contribute to the important work this non-profit does.
Part of my pre-Thanksgiving gratitude plan.