Thursday, February 3, 2011

Humility VIII

I have wanted to share the result of my brush with blackmail at the end of last week. I thank readers who commented on the situation; the comments helped to clarify my thinking. In the end, though, it was not my thinking that mattered. The ending was extraordinary, another example of God spoiling me.

Realizing my mistake (thinking that I did not need God's help for such a little task as informing an employee that he would be transferred), over the weekend I asked God to guide me in the decision whether or not to prosecute the employee for blackmail. I felt no guidance all weekend. On Sunday, I missed the morning Mass. Doah had wanted to go with me but did not call until too late. By the time he called, it was too late even for the noon Spanish Mass. However, there was an evening Mass in a church in the town where he lives. So, we made arrangements to go there.

When I entered the church with Doah, I was hoping that God would use something in the readings, music, or homily to provide guidance because I certainly would have to make a decision on Monday. It was more a matter of expectant waiting and not stress. I long ago learned that once I give a problem to God, I don't have to worry about it anymore.

Nothing in the readings or music provided any help with my difficult decision. So, I settled in to listen carefully to the homily. It was short, but good -- and had nothing to do with my situation. The homily was short because the priest could barely speak. He had spent a year at home in Colombia. (No, this is not Padre Julio, for those of you who recognize that name; Padre Julio has been assigned to a parish in San Diego.) While there he caught bronchial pneumonia, was hospitalized, then put on long-term bed rest at home. As a result, he had returned two months late to the parish in Doah's town. Although regularly taking antibiotics, he still suffered from bronchitis.

How fortunate that I was there, I thought. I suffered for decades from bronchitis, including four bouts of bronchial pneumonia with hospitalizations. No American doctor could cure me, and in 1993, when I was lecturing in Siberia, I spent as much time coughing as talking.

"Why are you coughing so much?" asked the regional minister of education who had invited me there to lecture to university administrators.

"Oh, I have bronchitis," I answered.

"Why do you still have bronchitis?" she asked. "You have been here four days already." Now that was a strange question and comment.

"I have had bronchitis for 18 months," I explained, puzzling over her question. "I have no cilia in my bronchi tubes because of many bouts of bronchial pneumonia, so colds turn immediately into bronchitis. I have it every year for many weeks."

"No, no, no," she remonstrated. "Bronchitis should not last more than three days. No one in Siberia has bronchitis for more than three days. So, American doctors don't know how to cure bronchitis? Our doctors do. You will go see our doctor when you finish your lecture."

True to her word, she led me, protesting in vain, to the doctor after the lecture ended. The doctor checked me out and confirmed the diagnosis from the States: bronchitis.

"You must come to the clinic every day for three days," he told me. "After that, your bronchitis will be gone. Please don't skip a day; it is important that we clear up this condition."

Three days? Entirely skeptical and not one bit hopeful for any amelioration of my condition, I dutifully followed the doctor into the respiratory therapy room. There he turned me over to a nurse, who gave me a hand-held device that emitted a cold, thick vapor. Ingalatsiya efkalitom (eucalyptus inhalation therapy) had been ordered for me. For 15 minutes, I slowly breathed in and out the cold vapor and noticed that during the therapy session I did not feel any need to cough.

My cough, in a milder form, did return in a few hours. Nonetheless, I returned the next day hopeful and no longer entirely skeptical. The nurse recognized me. Ingalatsiya efkaliptom, she said, handing me the inhaler that I now knew how to use.

After 15 minutes, I returned the device to her, thanked her, and left -- feeling no need to cough. It was not until the next day that I felt a need to cough once or twice. Amazing! I seemed to have licked the coughing. With one day of therapy left, after the morning lecture, which I got through without coughing once -- something I had not been able to do in 18 months -- I headed off to see my respiratory therapy nurse with alacrity. I took the device and, convinced now of its merits, deeply breathed in the vapor for 15 minutes. Done, I handed the device back to the nurse and left the clinic for the last time. That was in November 1993. I have never had bronchitis since. Certainly, I suffer from time to time from colds that would like to slide down past my cilia and develop into bronchitis, but, having learned the Siberians' secret, I pull out a bottle of eucalyptus oil and sniff it the minute I feel a cough coming on. Generally, it takes only 2-3 uses over a morning or an afternoon, and the bronchitis germs scamper off. I have given away my bottle of eucalyptus oil on many occasions. Each time, the recipient has related a story similar to mine: bronchitis gone in less than a day.

Once, I observed one of our secretaries taking antiobiotics upon her return from a two-week illness. "What are the antiobiotics for?" I asked her.

"Bronchitis," she said. "I have been fighting it for more than two weeks."

"No, no, no," I remonstrated, just like the Siberian minister of education 17 years earlier. "Bronchitis should not last more than three days." I handed her a bottle of eucalpytus oil, instructing her to sniff it whenever she felt a cough coming on. (Lacking the Siberian inhalation devices, sniffing is the closest I can come to emulating the Siberian natural cure. It works.)

Near the end of the day, I checked on the secretary. "How are you doing" I asked.

"I have not coughed all afternoon," she said. "It's like this stuff cured me instantly. Amazing!"

So, after Mass on Sunday, I stood at the very end of the line so that I could share the Siberian remedy for bronchitis with the priest. "I don't come to your church," I told him. "I attend Mass in San Ignatio, but today I missed Mass there so decided to come here with my son." Doah shook the priest's hand. "I think I was supposed to be here today," I explained, telling him my history and suggesting that he try eucalyptus oil.

He thanked me and assured me that he would do so. I am certain that he will, and I cannot imagine any result other than his bronchitis disappearing quickly. I suppose if that happens (or, I should say, when that happens), he may think that I was some kind of angel sent his way -- just once -- to help with a just-once need for a cure to a troubling and uncomfortable medical problem.

AsI left the church, I thought of the irony: I came for an answer, and instead, I gave an answer to a priest in need. Then it hit me. Wham! That was my answer. Sometimes God's answers are too brilliant, too out-of-the-box, too perfect for my imperfect mind to recognize them immediately. I was looking for an answer to the question, do I prosecute or not? God re-framed the question for me. It was not a question of whether or not to prosecute. It was not a question about what I should do. In fact, I had been looking at the problem upside-down all along. The problem was not about me. The problem was about the employee. I made the connection when I realized that my attendance at Mass was not for my good; it was for the good of the priest. There was my answer: stop looking at me as the central player, at what I should do, at how I was affected, and what I was feeling. Look, instead, at the employee, what motivated him, how he was affected, and what he was feeling. How much above our thinking is God's, as the psalm says! When I realized that, I knew what the next step had to be, and I knew I would, with God's help, be able to share God's grace and love with the employee when I next met with him.

As soon as I arrived at work, I called the human resources officer. No answer. So I sent an enote. Subject line: Occurrence of a felony in Division C. In the body of the message, I wrote: "If I have successfully gotten your attention, please call me." I had. She called me within minutes. I explained what had happened and what I wanted to do about it. She liked the approach.

After lunch, the human resources officer came to my office, read the contents, and confirmed that they contained nothing that could get me into any kind of trouble. I had the employee's supervisor send him to me. I welcomed him, as if nothing had happened, talked to him about a few routine matters, then asked him to sit down. At that point, I pulled out the envelope with the condemning file.

"Is this the envelope you gave to my secretary on Friday?" I asked. He confirmed that it was.

"Is this the negative 'documentation' that you told me you had on me when your supervisors and I met with you on Friday?" I asked. Again, he confirmed that it was.

"Did you hope by means of this document to get me to change my position on your transfer?" I asked. He was quiet, unsure of how to answer, clearly worried about what lay behind this line of questioning. His eyes looked for a place to hide, but there was none. I was looking directly at him, and so was the human resource officer.

"Let me share with you my perception of this," I said and went on to talk about the seriousness of blackmail, informing him that, since I hold a high-level security clearance, I cannot allow myself to be blackmailed, no matter what the nature of the documentation, without potentially losing the clearance.

"You have put me in a very difficult position," I added. Then I showed him the legal definition of blackmail, which he could see for himself pretty much described what he had done. I also gave him a printout of the legal codes (US and California penal code) that listed blackmail as a felony and the punishment as imprisonment and heavy fine. From his expression, I realized that he had not known that he was committing a felony.

"I would like to know why you did this," I said in a questioning tone, one that I hoped would come across as interested and caring, not accusatory, because I was, indeed, interested in knowing his motivation, especially if my perception was not the actual motivation.

He melted and asked if he could talk to me privately. The human resource person would not allow that, interjecting, "It is too late for that. The minute I leave this office, this becomes an official investigation, and she may not discuss this with you again. If you have something to say, you need to say it now."

He hesitated, then broke down. He had felt singled out by the transfer. Something I had said during the meeting had made him feel that I did not respect him. Most important, the document he had given me, in his opinion, showed that I had favored one particular employee, and he felt that was unfair. With the human resource officer concurring with my sharing the information and confirming what I said, I told him that the employee he considered favored had received one of the lowest ratings in the department and had received more disciplinary actions than anyone else, which is the reason he had left the department -- four years earlier.

There was one more question in my mind. "You accidentally found this file four years ago," I said to the employee. "Clearly, you have kept it for four years. Why? Do you really mistrust me so much that you felt the need to save something that might some day help you defend yourself?"

"No," the employee responded quietly, and then astonished me with his answer. "I was not looking to defend myself. I was not looking to make you do anything at all. Or to stop you from doing something. My feelings were hurt. You did not care enough about me to let me stay here in this department that I love, where my heart is, and, from what I could read in this file, I really did believe that you liked this other employee much more than me. I gave you the document to get you to think about whether you were really being fair."

The human resource officer stepped in at that point and iterated that every employee in the division who could not travel had been reassigned. Everyone was being treated the same. It was surely something that the employee needed to hear. What he wanted to hear, I was certain, was something else.

"I know your heart is here," I affirmed. "Unfortunately, your body has to be somewhere else. Both you and I know that your health will not permit you to travel. If I put you on a plane, I could be killing you." He admitted that I was right on both counts.

At the end, we agreed that he would accept the transfer. We also agreed that he would erase the file from his computer. We shook hands on it. He told me as well that he had made only the one printout that he had given me. I told him that I believed him, and that since we had shaken hands, I accepted his word as complete evidence that the problem was resolved and the file would be erased, that I had no intention of double-checking or of investigating further. At the point, the human resource officer returned the envelope to me, and both she and the employee left, in different directions.

I am confident that the matter is resolved. The employee is a Middle Easterner, and Middle Easterners prize being known as honoring their word.

I am thankful that this situation had a happy ending. I am grateful to God for once again spoiling me and taking care of my problem so easily. I am also grateful for the lesson learned: arrogance got me into the mess, humility got me out of it. If I can just remember to stick with humility only, I just might avoid most such messes in the future.