phlegm

I am a pretty phlegmy, or phlegmatic, guy. I have been for some time. Funny how the two definitions of this word have collided in my microcosm here lately.

I guess it was when I was in Washington DC recently that I first noticed that I was breathing harder – struggling for air more – than usual. I thought it was just the heat and the excessive walking. When I was in DC I was attending an International Round Table on Religious Freedom and walking, in a suit and tie, from place to place to attend seminars and meetings about human rights. During this physical huffing and puffing I was straining myself mentally as well, attempting to discern and divine and distinguish appropriate career paths for myself. I knew I was at a crossroads, but I didn’t feel like I had the wind to make it across. Several times in that lovely city, I stopped on a sidewalk and coughed until some disgusting filth came up. Thankfully, pedestrians in DC are fairly accustomed to disgusting filth in a sense, and no one paid much attention.

My phlegm has carried me through a lot in my career. People have said I had a “judicial temperament,” that I had a way of calming people in hostile mediation scenarios, that I managed situations in local politics without losing my cool. But I have grown weary of quite so much phlegm.

So after my return from DC, my coughing and wheezing worsened. As I sought medical attention to solve this problem, I also, in my own phlegmatic way sought solutions to my issues with my career. I was given antibiotics and promises of future conversations, respectively. Neither did anything for my issues, which were becoming more and more pressing – on my lungs and my mind simultaneously.

I spent two weeks going through a full round of treatment for my breathing problems with no success. More career opportunities were appearing in the realm of what I would call my calling, but I couldn’t take them. It began to seem like the perfect storm of health issues and mental stress. Something had to give.

I had been diagnosed with a respiratory infection but the treatment failed, and on a second visit I was diagnosed with bronchitis. I couldn’t breathe well enough to walk across a parking lot or give a presentation, and I didn’t understand why. At the end of a presentation on a recent Tuesday night, some friends insisted on taking me to the emergency room. Little did these friends know that I was in as much mental distress over career issues as physical distress over breathing. My phlegmatic ways seemed to be crushing me in that I was apparently wasn’t doing enough to relieve my own stress.

After the ER experience I stayed home for three days straight. (strange spiritual parallel) I did some significant praying and thinking, and I learned that a meeting had been called to discuss my job – the very issue I had been asking for discussion about – only instead of a quiet discussion with me, it was set to be a public discussion about me. My breathing was still labored, and at this point the stress of the perfect storm was making both sides of the storm that much worse.

When I arrived for the meeting, inhaler in my pocket and respiratory meds in my bloodstream, I heard my clients explain in casual terms how easily I could be replaced, how the local prosecutor’s office could take over and save money, how I really wasn’t all that vital. As I was standing in front of them, explaining how I was not interested in “leaving them hanging” without an attorney – and meaning it sincerely – I was hearing them make it clear that it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Later that night I pulled the following out of my fortune cookie from my lunch earlier:

At 3:00 that night, I lay awake in bed unable to sleep because of both the health issues and the mental issues of “the storm.” It was then that I realized just how foolishly phlegmy I was. I was calmly and considerately investing in people who were not investing in me. I was promising to be available to people who seemed to be waiting for me to exit. I was wasting my time and theirs. At 3:30 am I could practically hear God reminding me that there were others who were waiting for me to arrive as much as these were waiting for me to leave, and urging me not to waste my (His) time on the wrong investments.

So the next day, in spite of what I had said in the meeting, I drafted a resignation letter. The next day, my breathing got so bad that I almost passed out, and avoided it only because someone had an oxygen tank handy. I made it to my doctor and he admitted me into the local hospital, where I now sit for the second night.

Phlegm, at least in excess, is overrated. I think people can see that the disgusting thick liquid kind is unappealing, but I have learned that the kind of calm stoicism where you allow people who don’t value you to use you and then toss you aside like a rag doll is just as disgusting.

I have learned a lesson about phlegm. The word has two definitions. One is clearly disgusting and the other can be deceitfully toxic if allowed to.

I have chosen to start a new segment of my career, avoiding the negative of both while still embracing the positive. I recommend the same for anyone.

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