Sometimes, events and people outside your control have an outsized influence on your life. I don’t just mean in little things but in significant ways regarding how you behave morally and ethically. We’d all hope this would be some inspirational individual or life-reaffirming event leading us to better things and aspirations. But life often puts us in the path of avalanches of pure evil and challenges us to be better despite it.
So, it was with my first job as a practicing anthropologist. I was due to start the day following New Year’s, but I was called in for a meeting with the director on Christmas Eve. The staff that led me to his office seemed never to expect to see me again and appeared mournful. Walking into his office, I was met with a wall of cheap tobacco smoke from the Camel cigarettes he chain-smoked. He wore what must have once been a quality tweed jacket a full size too small and glared at me as though I was an unwanted intrusion on his day rather than a command performance by his request on Christmas Eve. That was the good part of the meeting.
I came to call him Joltin’ Joe; he reminded me of some overstuffed ugly child’s toy. The kind of toy equipped with a pull string for a recorder full not of so witty observations and foul comments. The more Christian of my colleagues referred to him as Mr. Bigwig; once, I was told, he’d been a well-educated, well-spoken professional and a person on the rise. Now, though the system had spat him out, and he was evidence of the truth of that parable that “he who the God’s wish to destroy, they first call promising.”
He was to be my boss for most of the seven and a half years I worked in that position. From him, I learned that to do good and well when working with a destructive administration, you must master the cumbersome art of avoiding them, frustrating them, and going around and behind them. If you want to achieve anything, you must never allow yourself to vegetate, be still, or lose focus. You needed to cut broad swaths and never merely nibble. Of course, I learned from him by not doing as instructed and doing the opposite as often as possible. With help, I found independent pockets of grant money that allowed me to fund projects that made his blood boil.
How was I so successful in avoiding his axe for all those years? Politics. He was not well-liked, feared perhaps, but not well-liked. I found allies in the city administration who wished him poorly and found that they loved to frustrate him.
At seven and a half years, I found a better job and left. The most important thing I learned from the experience was that it was essential to do right and not yield to evil. I realize now that I was lucky; I found allies and people who wished to frustrate Joltin’ Joe and offered advice. Surprisingly enough I found a compelling guide to do good, by working with a bad person.
Basically, people like Joe are their own worst enemies. Their uncontrolled anger gets in the way of their being genuinely compelling villains. “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”