Oblique Divorce Strategy #7 — Is anyone hurt? (part two)

In Part I, we left Allen as he was preparing to call SCE to report a fraud. The details of his story were taken down, and he was assured that he wasn’t the only person to fall for this particular scam. But the representative was very clear: It wasn’t likely that the perpetrators would be apprehended. Since SCE didn’t get a penny of the “payment,” the restaurant’s account balance would be unchanged — and the last day to make a payment without a penalty was still tomorrow.

At first, Allen denied that any of this had happened. How was it possible? He talked to two different people at SCE before making the first payment and three different people before he made the second.

Was the SCE truck in the neighborhood by coincidence? Did they know Elaine was on jury duty? Wait, the first person he talked to read from what sounded like his account information — was it? How did she get it? And then there was the phone number — no one answered Raymond’s number. The original call came into the restaurant — where he had economized by not having caller ID.

He hadn’t saved the day. He had flushed $5,000 down the toilet. Do you know how hard you have to work to make a $5,000 profit from a restaurant? He knew how hard Elaine worked to keep the books in order and the bills and employees paid. What a mockery he had made of that. He practically hung up on her when she told him that it was impossible that the electric bill was so delinquent and termination was imminent!

No one had touched him. No one had touched his property. His space has not been violated. Was there a violation? Or was it only the exploitation of his stupidity and incompetence. After all, he didn’t have the responsibility for paying the bills. That’s what Elaine did. His job was to not pay bills. Don’t pay the bills — how hard was that? Too hard for him. Let’s see, if he lost $4,798 every week, he’d have to make a quarter of a million dollars net of expenses before he took home a dollar of profit. Why was he in business? Why didn’t he simply stand at a corner and hand out $5 bills to anyone who seemed to need or want the money.

Having had more than one similar experience myself, I understood exactly what Allen meant when he said that he had made himself sick and that his first reaction was to pretend to himself that it hadn’t happened.

The tactic didn’t work for him for the same reason it didn’t work for me: Sleep, or rather, the need for it! Denial works as long as you’re active and can keep your mind focused on other things. But then the day ends and the most pressing concerns are: What’s wrong with me? What will I do next? How can anyone trust me or rely on me?

Anger, the go-to emotion for men, is directed toward the villains, but it can’t find the target. Who are they? And what, exactly, did they do? They’ll never get caught for this. Without a target, the anger finds its way back to me and turns into self-loathing. I begin a mental project in which I attempt to recall every time I’ve disappointed anyone in any possible way. It’s going to take some time, but it will keep my mind busy. The sense of stupidity feeds on itself, and while the effect of this kind of activity should be obvious, it isn’t.

Allen’s the kind of guy with adult children who call him regularly — even when they don’t need anything. On the day after the great heist, and after one sleepless night, Allen’s Disappointment Project was in its infancy when his son called just to check in. They chatted back and forth long enough for Allen to begin to feel like he was an actor. The person using his voice was acting as though he wasn’t the stupid incompetent he had just proved himself to be.

“Listen,” he said to his son. “Something happened yesterday that I’m going to tell you about. I don’t come out well.” He told the story.

When he was done there was a silence on the other end of the line. His son was probably trying to come to terms with his own father’s stupidity and wondering how much of it was genetic. “What do you think?” he finally asked.

“I’m thinking about what you’ve always said to me when something hasn’t gone my way.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“You always ask, ‘Is anyone hurt?’”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“I’ll ask you. Dad, is anyone hurt?”

“No, of course not. Thank you for reminding me.”

“You’re welcome.”

They talked some more, mostly about how crafty and lucky the scammers had been, and how they had a third person in reserve to pluck another $1,542 from their pigeon. When the call was over Allen felt more whole. His son now knew that he had a dope for a father — or rather, a father who had been doped, and it didn’t seem to make any difference.

“Is anyone hurt?” It wasn’t a question Allen had to remember to ask when one of his children reported a problem or trouble; He asked it automatically in order to get to the heart of the situation quickly. If someone was hurt, of course that received first priority and everything else came second. If no one was hurt, then everything else was still secondary. The situation could be worked out, or, more often than not, things have a way of working out on their own.

Once he told the story to his son, he couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, and he couldn’t pretend that it hadn’t happened to him. His son’s reaction allowed him to feel more like himself, but he still felt pretty dumb.

So he made a call to his father. In its absence of content the conversation began in a way remarkably similar to the beginning of the conversation he had just had with his son. “Dad, I’m calling because something pretty bad happened to me yesterday.”

Before Allen could start the story, he was preempted by his father’s question, “Is anyone hurt?”

                                                                 •        •        •

To me, this story could provide the subject for a most laudatory eulogy in death or encomium in life for each of the three men.

The story demonstrates that they consciously believe the physical well-being of everyone is of a higher order of importance than anything else, which makes everything else preferential. Preferences will be manageable or unmanageable. Preferences will be satisfied or disappointed, but in either event they are mere preferences so long as no one is hurt.

One father has instilled it in his son who has done the same for his son. When we learn the lesson from the first generation, it not only benefits the second generation but it is also transmitted back by the third generation — and we know the spread of this bit of wisdom is potentially infinite.

It’s likely that most of us have the same value but, because of the apparent urgency of a challenging situation, we forget to ask, “Is anyone hurt?” Without asking the question we are less likely to appreciate that the negative response puts our present difficulties into a better — and more accurate — perspective.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #8 — My wife’s lawyer doesn’t understand me.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail info@burkefamilylaw.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.