Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

Photo credit: Jannes Glas/Unsplash

met Ani when I was close to the end of my proverbial prosecutor rope. Unaware of the signs of burnout, I’d been sending murderers and child rapists to prison for a decade and a half without pausing to come up for air, at the expense of my well-being and that of my family. My ‘Your-battery-is-critically-low’ light stayed on as I was saving the world — one victim plus twelve jurors at a time — while my kids were being raised by YMCA camp counselors, my health was declining and my anxiety was through the roof.

When Ani came into my life, I wasn’t sure I had enough steam to handle her case. She had been horribly abused by her boyfriend over the course of a year, culminating in being abducted and raped, and I’d recently lost my 12-year-old son in a tragic accident. Work was a welcome relief and helped me pace the processing of my grief. Ani and I were both in the throes of trauma, though the trauma-informed awakening wouldn’t dawn for a few more years.

I don’t know if it was in spite of my situation or because of it, but Ani and I immediately connected. She was ashamed she’d recanted the earlier abuse, even though that is completely normal, and that his abuse had made her into a fragile copy of her former strong, independent self. I was committed to using my skill and experience to help her and would do whatever necessary to protect her from her monster.

The protracted trial was hard on Ani because of its duration and intense public dissection of her character. But I’d spent many afternoons with her and her advocate, going over what cross-examination would look like and sometimes just listening to her talk about the life that she thought she’d signed up for. Would she ever recover from this? Find love? Have a family?

After several days of testimony and expert witness battles, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. I was washed with relief, knowing that Ani would be safe from her abuser for many, many years. Ani, on the other hand, remained immobilized with fear. I went from ecstatic to deflated with the realization that there was nothing I could do for her that would give her what she really needed — freedom from fear. In hindsight, I now know that the gift that Ani gave me, however, was immeasurable. I learned from her that the opposite of sadness isn’t necessarily happiness but, rather, resilience. Knowing her and watching her slow recovery helped me discover my new “happy.”

March 20th is the International Day of Happiness. Happiness is defined as bliss, joy, good fortune, pleasure and even exhilaration, which, for most of us, is a pretty high standard, sometimes even a bad joke. We often envision happy people as well-dressed, well-groomed, thin, funny, bubbly, individuals with good teeth who are probably active with the PTA and apparently have been vaccinated against life’s unpleasantries. They are lucky. But are they real? How did they get there? Why celebrate this ever-elusive idea?

Perhaps the intent behind Happiness Day was to remind us to prioritize our own well-being at least once every year. But so many people have an unattainable idea of what it means to be happy and having a day dedicated to this hefty word only reminds them of what they lack. Backfire. We all want to be happy, but there are so many prerequisites: after this next trial; after Marky graduates; after my student loans are paid; after I finish the presentation; after the police understand that we are on the same team; after this victim is no longer in danger; after, after, after. . .

What happy is not. I have a friend, I’ll call Sara, who has been really struggling with some unexpected challenges. She recently posted this Rachel Martin quote and explained its significance in light of the happiness discussion.

Today you have a choice. You can choose between anger and love, division and unity, frustration and hope, selfishness and giving, turning away and showing up. And the choice is simple — choose kindness. It is hard to regret being kind.

“I like this one because it doesn’t tell you to choose happiness. I hate those ones. Not all of us can choose happiness; especially those suffering clinical depression. Not all of us can even choose hope, but that feels more manageable than happiness on the dark days.” Sara’s response underscores the importance of swapping the insidious “happiness” label in exchange for something more practical.

As prosecutors, we are mired in trauma, conflict and a state of constant stress and, usually inadvertently, tend to equate happiness with the unattainable concept of closure, finality and relief. But there is always another ‘after this’ thing. How do we shift our thinking from what we don’t have and invest our energy in those things that usher deep, personal satisfaction?

My new happy. Figuring out what makes each of us thrive is a life-long dynamic process, but we get to choose our own recipe for the secret sauce and we also get to choose our own metric for measuring its success. I narrowed the scope with two threshold questions. What matters to me? What can I control? Weeding out what other people think should matter and then abandoning all things outside of your control, drastically narrows the focus. What surfaced for me are these four keys — contentment, forward motion, connection, and giving your very best — for living a life with meaning, all of which start inside of me.

Contentment. Contentment means accepting where you are right now. It doesn’t mean you are OK with the past, or condoning people or behaviors that hurt others. Instead, it means acknowledging the bumpy road that brought you to this point in your life. It is a, where-do-I-go-from-here? question. The bad stuff isn’t going away. Loved ones may fall ill. Bullies abound. But how can a negative experience make you a better person? A better prosecutor? Learning how to sit with the unease can lead to acceptance. It’s a lot like planking — it’s really tough at first but is so good for your core. You build this muscle and with strength, comes clarity.

Forward motion. Keep moving and never stop being better. This is the “pursuit” part of happiness that takes work and even some grit, like keeping your deck stained, weeds pulled, or bills current. Happiness — like a successful long-term relationship — doesn’t just happen, it requires a daily investment in YOU to be a better prosecutor, better partner, better friend, better human. Conjure enthusiasm. Be indefatigable. Paulo Coelho eloquently said, “Never give up. When your heart becomes tired, just walk with your legs — but move on.”

Connection. Putting people in front of process also takes some practice. When we take every opportunity to be present with the person on the other side of the desk, we spark connection that positively impacts both of us. The email will wait. The checklist will still be there tomorrow. True happiness involves attending to other beings — co-workers, victims, family, friends and even our animals.

Giving your very best. This last one is the culmination of the first three — acceptance, dogged improvement of your skills, and connecting with another when it matters most. A few years ago, I read an article about a poor family that was known in their small rural community for their generosity. Despite having little money, the parents would give food from their garden, their newest clothes and toys to families in need, often to their own detriment. In adulthood, the now-grown daughter reminisced about the profound impact of giving away their “very best” to those who needed a boost. The gifts included a transfer of pride, love and care, which was so much more meaningful than donating items destined for Goodwill. It mattered more — to the recipients and to the family.

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Our best doesn’t have to be material. We were drawn to this profession because of a deep-seated drive to help those in need and fulfill our roles as ministers of justice. We studied, interned, watched and practiced. Whether your talents lie in prosecuting child abusers, trying homicide cases, or inspiring leadership, the required skillset is nuanced and specialized. Commit to being the most skilled version of yourself in that role, hone that expertise and then give your very best to those who you serve — the ones who need you most.

I didn’t see Ani again for almost ten years. Unexpectedly, my receptionist called one busy Monday morning to tell me there was a family here to see me. In the lobby I immediately recognized Ani, who was with a handsome young man and white-haired boy about four. They came back to my office and, as she told me about her successful business and new home, I remember thinking that this woman is the epitome of resilience and I am lucky to have crossed paths with her during such a dark time in my life. Ani said that they didn’t have much time, but that she wanted to stop by to say, “Hi” and, “thanks for this,” as she pointed to her family. My eyes filled. Indeed, it is I who am thankful for her and others like her that embody the durability of the human soul and remind us why we do what we do.

Is her life perfect? No. She still struggles with bouts of self-doubt and, like the rest of us, continues to stumble through the rough patches on life’s uneven path. My life? Same. But I do know that because my work brought me to Ani, at the time she needed my help and I needed a reason to go on, both of our lives are better.

Article: What is happiness, Positive Psychology

Article: 7 Myths about happiness, Psychology Today

Article: How to be happy, 25 habits to add to your routine, Healthline

Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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