The stump outside my house was the perfect place for chopping up earthworms. At least two feet in diameter, there was enough room across its ringed surface for me to sit and slice at the same time.
Despite what one might think, I was and am a non-violent person. But as a child, I believed that worm pieces regenerated. By cutting worms in half, I thought I was multiplying their population, thereby taking part in important zoological conservation work.
I had no idea I was actually committing mass murder.
My parents often scolded me when they found the holes I’d dug in our lawn to collect specimens. I may have even gotten a spanking. It was the 1970s after all.
So, one day when my father came home from work, and found me chopping a new batch of worms on the stump, he wanted to know where I’d dug up our lawn this time. Proudly, I told him that our grass was unharmed, because I’d found my worms in the old lady’s yard up the street!
He went inside the house, changed into his plaid polyester lounge pants and a belted sweater vest, then came back to the stump. With a lit pipe protruding from his bushy mustache, my father considered his options. Normally, he was loud and a little scary, but this time, he calmly announced, “Lisa, you’re not supposed to dig holes in people’s lawns without asking. We will go to the old lady’s house, and you will tell her what you did.”
My memory of our walk up the street is patchy. I recall feeling a nervous burning in the pit of my stomach, and tunnel vision that made the old lady’s house seem a million miles away. Her porch stairs multiplied as I ascended them. My father waited on the sidewalk.
I don’t even remember seeing the old lady that opened the door. But I will never forget the bone-crushing humiliation I felt while confessing my crime to her.
I went on to make plenty of other bad choices in my youth, but I never dug up worms in anyone’s yard again. The punishment I received was simple, quiet, and highly effective.
In fact, looking back at mistakes I’ve made in my 49 years, the most vivid memories are of the quiet times when I was left to consider the gravity of my transgressions. When harshly accused, I recall the punishment, but can never quite remember what I’d done wrong in the first place. The heated emotions of intense moments seemed to drown out the underlying significance, leaving me feeling only sorry for myself.
One of the best lessons I learned as an adult happened when I was a new attorney. My client was one of a dozen defendants in a complicated products liability case. At the deposition of my client (my first deposition ever), I stood up and asked the roomful of older male attorneys if I could question my client first, rather than waiting until the other lawyers asked their questions, as was customary. I was confident that the facts would clear my client of liability, and I wanted to save everyone a lot of time. They all agreed.
The next day, my boss called me into his office. I had nothing but respect for this seasoned litigator whom I had come to know as my mentor. I sat across the desk from him with my legal pad and pen, jotting down a list of new tasks as he spoke.
“Oh, and one last item, Lisa,” he said calmly. “About yesterday. You know, when the other side wants information, they need to work for it. Don’t make their job easier.”
In that quiet moment, the clutter of my mind parted like the Red Sea, and I could clearly see my error: I had broken a cardinal rule of litigation procedure and felt an acute sense of shame. How could I be so stupid?
Much like the worm massacres of my youth, I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake again while practicing law. The lesson was cemented in my mind permanently, never to be forgotten.
In today’s world of angry rhetoric, violent attacks and knee-jerk reactions, sometimes it’s the quiet voices that are best heard.
[The original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster shown above (now an internet meme) was issued by the British Government in 1939 as a motivational tool to prepare the British people for the oncoming Blitz of World War II.]