There’s a terrific opening scene in Stephen King’s novel, “Pet Sematary.”
I don’t read a lot of Stephen King novels. That’s not because I dismiss his skill as a writer. It’s because they scare the hell out of me.
In this one, the main character is a young doctor. He’s on his first day at a hospital when a college kid is rushed into the ER. The kid was hit by a car, so he’s all smashed up, his neck broken, blood all over the place, one eyeball hanging out – whatever. Just as the doctor is concluding he’s dead, an arm shoots out, grabs the doctor by the collar and the dead kid stares at him (with his working eyeball.)
“Stay away from the Pet Cemetery!” he intones.
In a flash, it’s over. The kid is stone cold, and the doctor wonders if he was hallucinating.
The suggestion to stay away from the pet cemetery, however, is a sensible one. Like most sensible suggestions, it goes entirely unheeded.
I don’t want to give away the ending (and I only read the first 20 pages because I got scared) but I suspect, if he stays away from the pet cemetery, flesh-eating zombies won’t become an issue.
But he doesn’t listen!
Lawyers are the same way. They just don’t listen!
Here’s another scary story. My client was in law school. With a big smile, she announced to her journalist boyfriend she was accepting a job at the big, prestigious law firm where she’d summered the year before.
He grabbed her by the collar, his face etched with horror, and intoned: “But you hated that place. It totally weirded you out. You said you were pursuing public interest. Why would you go back there?”
She didn’t listen. Now their relationship is over, and she’s hating her job and her life and weeping in my office.
“Why didn’t I listen?”
But she’s not the only one. You had moments like that, too – didn’t you? When someone tried to warn you?
My Pet Sematary moment came the summer before I started law school.
I was visiting home, went to a party and ran into an old friend – a guy I’d known since I was about twelve years old. I casually related the big news – I was going to law school! I expected one of several possible reactions:
- an expression, feigned or otherwise, of happiness that I was finding my way forward in the world;
- a tinge of jealousy that he was still a burn-out art student while I was on my way to wielding staggering corporate power; or
- curiosity about law school and how he might follow in my tracks.
I didn’t get any of those reactions. I got disappointment and concern.
“It doesn’t feel right. You’re a good guy – think hard before you do this.”
I didn’t listen. I knew “selling out” was part of “growing up.” I was acting like an adult, getting serious for a change. This guy – a computer geek interested in being an artist – knew nothing about my future as a high-powered corporate lawyer. He was probably jealous.
In reality, he knew a lot. He was a few years older and had friends who did the biglaw thing. He knew the scoop, and spotted me as a train wreck waiting to happen. He also knew it was pointless to try to stop someone firmly committed to self-destruction.
Stay away from the pet cemetery!
Why is it so hard to listen, respectfully, when someone who knows you well, and knows what he’s talking about, tries to warn you law might not be right?
Part of the answer is that lawyers tend to be loners. You’re smart and competitive and you do it yourself. You’re probably young, too, when you make the decision to pursue biglaw. Young lawyers are eager to please, to find success and gain attention. They’re not known for an eagerness to listen to others and take advice.
People resist psychotherapy for the same reason. There’s the thought – “what’s this guy going to understand about me or my situation I don’t already know?” That’s the first barrier to overcome – accepting you might need another person’s feedback to discover something useful about yourself. It’s not only about trusting a therapist, either. In group psychotherapy you learn that a collection of strangers might have a lot to tell you. They can spot things you miss in your own world.
A basic tenet of psychotherapy is that we need one another to heal. Opening up and listening to other people, tolerating their feelings and taking in their feedback, is a step towards maturity.
Nowadays, when someone tells me to stay away from the pet cemetery, I sit up and listen. I wish I’d learned that lesson sooner – it might have saved me a whole lot of trouble and wasted time.
Stay away from the pet cemetery!
Don’t turn up your nose at good advice. It wouldn’t kill you to give it a listen.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)