“The Only Thing I Know About the Dark is That You Can’t See in It”- Roy Hobbs
Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair
I always wanted to be like Roy Hobbs in The Natural. I wanted to be the best.
I realize this movie reference dates me, but I’m ok with that. For those who don’t know, Roy Hobbs is the central character played by Robert Redford in one of the greatest movies ever made about the love of baseball. Of course, I don’t play baseball and I’m not a man, but that’s not important. I wanted to be the best prosecutor there ever was from day one. That was nearly twenty-three years ago and the world was a very different place. Time has a way of doing that to us.
Being a prosecutor in 1998 was a far cry from 2020, in good ways and bad. As a young prosecutor, you jump into a whole new world — one that is different from what you likely lived in prior to becoming an attorney representing “the people”. You learn about, well, crime, and the horrible acts people do to each other. You witness the worst in people and meet victims in the most vulnerable times of their lives. You see things seemingly reserved for TV or the movies, and more often than not, things you never thought you would. But when you’re in your twenties, time feels like it’s on your side. You have the extra time to spend in the office, the time on the evenings and weekends, and the motivation to take on new challenges and learn the ropes.
At some point along the way, that changes. Families, commitments, aging parents, home buying… responsibilities. Yet, our work habits have already formed. We are on the treadmill always moving forward with the volume, intensity and complexities of trial work. The balance, if you ever had it, can slip away. It’s only prioritizing your cases and not the things that will, hopefully, be around after the work is done. It’s having your game face on at all times, because, as we know, “there’s no crying in baseball”.
To strive to be the best, it meant working nonstop. It meant sacrificing a normal social life. A normal marriage. A normal anything. At least, that’s what I thought it meant. I was wrong. Yes, you have to put in the work. And you have to work hard. But I now know you don’t have to isolate and shut out others in order to work hard. Having conversations with other people, sharing experiences and allowing your emotional needs to be met make you a better prosecutor.
Spending time with family, friends and having interests outside of work keep you from becoming self-absorbed and remind you that the world is still a good place. The work will never go away, the cases will always be there and the stress isn’t going to get much lower. But, there are ways to manage these things and balance it out so you can maintain the best YOU.
Leaders change, co-workers may come and go and the world will happily spin on without you in it someday. You are left with you and the things that matter. The work absolutely matters and is one of the most admirable professions in the world (if you ask me). But decades down the road, you can prevent the burnout and general discontent that many experience after so many years of service. You can feel grateful every day and passionate about what you do because you are taking care of YOU along the way.
After becoming educated about secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, resiliency and peer support, I became very involved in the formation and functioning of a peer support team within the DA’s office as well as ongoing training in many related areas. Whether it be active listening, suicide prevention, processing grief, crisis intervention, self-care exercises and nutrition, the light switch clicked on for me. Discussing the issues, talking through problems and exploring other perspectives is a good thing.
Listening to others without judgment and being that trusted helper only makes you better as a person and allows you to continue to serve those you care about and the profession you love. It’s not about ego and grinding away to “be the best” in the old school sense, it’s about being our own best and that shining through into your work and profession. It sounds so simple yet it has been profound in how I now live my life.
I don’t regret the effort or time I put in. I don’t regret the commitment I made then and that I continue to make every day. What I do “regret” is not figuring out sooner how to build resiliency and self-regulate when life became a little too busy. And if this were a ball game, we’d be at the 7th inning stretch — which is good. It means there is still time for a come-back. I’m now rooting for the home team and that is my definition of “winning”.
I implore any prosecutor who feels that “being the best” means shutting off your empathy or emotions to start talking about it. It can be a trusted friend, family member, mentor, peer supporter or mental health professional. Serving victims requires you to have sympathy, empathy, patience and compassion.
I don’t live in the dark anymore. I can clearly see the light and appreciate the sunshine when it’s out. I can also appreciate the rain and what it has to offer. No one needs to live in a “dark” world in order to be an effective, competent and compassionate prosecutor. There are many prosecutors that are far more successful and experienced than I and I applaud them, always remain in awe of their accomplishments and am proud to call many my colleagues and friends. But for me, being ‘the best” just means something very different now.
Then again, maybe I shoulda been a farmer.
- Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley, may he rest in peace)
Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair Women Prosecutors Section.