An Injury of Faith
how a job search broke my heart* and gave it back to me
Feb 13, 2018
For open-hearted people, a job search can feel like a series of heartbreaks—the rush of possibility, followed by the blow of disappointment, time after time. It takes loads of effort and courage to keep believing, but occasionally it takes even more to stop.
I recently had an extraordinary experience while exploring a job opportunity. The process of courtship was deep, even intimate, with the power of a spiritual awakening, but ended abruptly, when I discovered that the company I had come to trust had roots in an abusive cult. As well-versed in the signs and snares of manipulation as a professional people-watcher should be, I didn't heed the warnings. And I'd never have felt so deeply wounded if I hadn't so deeply believed.
If I were to trace this story back to its root, I'd likely land in the ‘80s, at Vacation Bible School, where I spent the summer asking Jesus into my heart over and over again. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to start 5 weeks ago, at a food court in Chicago, where I'd just been asked a familiar question by an unfamiliar person.
"How are you doing with the layoff?"
I was at a professional get-to-know-ya lunch with Samuel. (Not his real name.) We'd been introduced by his employer-of-sorts, Caroline (also not her name), the co-founder of a company called RealCo (yep: nope), a consultancy that coaches business leaders and teams in company-wide integrity, with a proprietary “whole person” process. I'd been pursuing them for more than a year to do their magic at my former agency in Kansas City, but couldn't get the project funded. When my own position went unfunded via mass layoff, Caroline was my first call.
Having been the Empathy & Intelligence Director (a unicorn position involving ethnographic research and internal empathy-building initiatives), I sensed RealCo was a unique fit. Caroline and I connected on WhatsApp, and she impressed me by asking, as a next step, that I interview her newest team member, Samuel. He'd been with her for about 9 months, and lived in my hometown of Chicago. "Ask him if we really practice what we preach. Don't hold back. Make sure you know who you are dealing with." Her willingness to be examined gave me confidence all by itself.
Samuel and I met for lunch a few weeks later, on my next trip home. We moved swiftly through the opening niceties - where we came from, where we'd worked, how we came to know Caroline and RealCo - then the question. How was I doing with the layoff?
The truth was, I didn't know. When it all came apart back in November, I defaulted to problem-solving mode. I built a website portfolio almost overnight, scheduled dozens of coffees with strangers, learned how to use LinkedIn again, and tried to figure out Christmas. For weeks I woke up and blasted dance music until I shook the gremlins out. There wasn't a lot of room for grieving.
"Samuel, I'm on full-time attitude control right now, so I can't speak to that entirely. But I can tell you what I've been up to since then." I redirected.
I saw him notice me steer away, but I also saw something else. I saw him attempt to turn a professional conversation into a personal one. Something about it felt odd, but a part of me—the part of me that has been trained to do exactly that thing with ethnographic research subjects—was intrigued. Did he really care how I was feeling? He had known me for less than 20 minutes. Why was he asking me that?
Discussing our work, we found an intersection in dealing with the way companies’ expressed values are often different than their demonstrated values. Textbook "say vs. do." Samuel told me the story of RealCo confronting a CEO who had been unwittingly spreading toxicity and fear in his own company, and I started telling him about Ben (not really his name), one of the leaders of my former agency, whose values I believed in and supported, and who had chosen to let me go.
"When Ben hired me, there was a vision that the presence of a Director of Empathy would mark a revolution in the work and culture of the company. But that never came to be." Legacy processes got in the way, but fear was the major roadblock. The initiatives I proposed required boldness and commitment, but many of the people whose support I needed were too afraid of losing their own jobs to offer it. The agency had been through multiple layoffs, and those remaining had tightened their comfort zones and focused on the bottom line. "I believed in what I came to do, and I believed that Ben believed in it. Now I'm not sure what happened."
I must have sounded upset, because Samuel leaned in. His voice became both softer and sharper. "Have you considered that the reason your next step hasn't become clear is that you haven't forgiven Ben?"
Samuel said the f-word. And it rattled me.
My eyes filled with water, and I opened them wider to prevent spilling. I wanted out of this, but I also wanted in. I felt the truth of what he was saying, but conflict that he was saying it. I spun through definitions of the moment: Has he just crossed a professional boundary or a personal one? Did I invite him to cross it? Can I reverse course or have I passed the point of no return? Is this ok with me? Is this ok?
For reasons I’m still sorting out, I decided it was ok. I told him I was uneasy, but willing to listen. He explained that the work RealCo does is deep and authentic, and requires that practitioners of their methodology are free of emotional baggage that would become an obstacle in the work. He offered to send me a course on forgiveness, and I agreed to read it, as it seemed that refusing his offer would likely end our exchange. "I'm not unwilling," I tight-smiled, "I just didn't see this coming."
What came next was either a spiritual awakening or a hypomanic episode. I began the forgiveness exercise within hours, and just as quickly felt my fog lifting. I met with Ben about my termination, and experienced a powerful hour of mutual vulnerability, resulting in complete release of my resentment and grief. I tried the exercise with other grievances, and felt lighter and freer with each one. Tiny breakthroughs occurred daily. Then bigger ones. It was a gust of hope that had been absent for longer than I wanted to measure.
The conversations with Samuel and Caroline continued, potently, as we discussed everything from my future with RealCo to the emotional landscape of what Caroline called my "big ticket items," forgiveness-wise. Caroline asked me if I would allow Samuel to coach me through them, and again, I was challenged to redefine my preconceived notions of our roles. "How would I navigate a professional partnership with the person who is helping me through my emotional issues? Doesn't that get messy?" I asked. "How do you handle boundaries at RealCo?"
"That's a great question, and I'd say, first of all, that we might use the word 'structure' rather than 'boundaries.'" Caroline assured me that, because the work they do is holistic, there is no topic they aren't willing and able to take on. No trauma too great. No heart too messy. No fear too deep. She assured me that the tools they employ are capable of handling all of it, and most importantly, all of me. Having spent most of my life being told I was too much, too intense, or too complicated, I felt I'd found my tribe.
That said, things were moving quickly, even for me. The duration of our relationship, from the first lunch, to the night Samuel and I spent hours on the phone working through the emotional shrapnel of my father's traumatic abandonment, was exactly 17 days.
Even so, I was experiencing what felt like real light pouring in, simply using the one tool that was shared with me. Friends approached me about what they were seeing. Several asked to do the forgiveness exercise, and I sent it to them. When I told Samuel what was going on, he mentioned I should know the exercise wasn't an official tool of RealCo, but came from a personal development program most of the team at RealCo had completed. He said the program would soon be offered in Orlando, and recommended that I do it, adding that it is not required. Both co-founders of RealCo were alums of the course, and one of them, "Ian," had advanced to a high level of skill in the program. The real name of that program is Avatar.
Preparations began. Caroline invited me to observe the team on their next assignment in California, and sent me two documents, an NDA and a PDF outlining the path to becoming a RealCo associate. I made travel plans for California, and started to budget for the 9-day, $3k Avatar course in Orlando that would follow. It was a stretch to make it work with no income in sight, but if not now, then when? I was being offered the chance to clear out my emotional bullshit and do profoundly important work with this specialized, integral, emotionally intelligent team.
I blocked my calendar, arranged a house sitter, and sat down with the documents from Caroline. The NDA seemed needlessly strict, but they always do. (Don't they?) Then I opened the PDF on becoming an associate. With each page, my elation deflated. I knew I'd be a contractor and not an employee, but I was required to pay for my own training, bring in a quota of clients, and log a number of coaching hours before I would be eligible to make decent money, all of which depended on the availability of projects. Under this plan, it would take 3 years to achieve my current day rate, and even then I wouldn't be guaranteed a number of days at that rate. While most may read this and think "pyramid scheme," it is revealing that I read it and thought, "Samuel didn't really care about me." Samuel's hours coaching me would get him to the next pay level, and it was hard to imagine that wasn't his primary intention.
Even so, perhaps I was jumping to conclusions. Why assume the worst? A great job is still a job, after all. Maybe it was ok if this shiny thing wasn't so shiny. My inner voices were arguing now, and I needed perspective. I opened a chat window with a rational friend.
I never sent him the PDF, and didn't have to. My friend reminded me that, in an employment situation, the money should move in one direction. Not two. He was elaborating when I had to take a call. It was Samuel and Ian.
Samuel had arranged the call in order for me to ask all my questions about Avatar, though I only had two. "First, what is the foundational ideology of the course? Where does it come from?" I've done every kind of therapy I've ever heard of. I just wanted to know what wild world I was about to enter. I expected to hear something new-agey, self-helpy, or pop-psychy, and I did.
Ian answered, "Avatar is an exploration of consciousness, and the tools we use can be found in many other traditions, from Buddhism to behavioral science." Well-traveled territory for me, though it didn't seem like much of an answer. Ian explained that Avatar is not a religion, but employs teachings that were transmitted to Harry Palmer for the purpose of sharing with others. I did notice the word "transmitted," but wasn't phased.
Once one chooses to travel an uncommon path, one must ignore common critique. It's an idea I learned as a young believer. And by "believer," I don't necessarily mean a religious believer, though that was part of it early on. I am a Believer with a capital B, a believer as an identity. A willing devotee of beautiful dreams, inspiring vision, and unlikely ideals. As I see it, creativity alone requires that one give oneself to the spirit of an idea. To say nothing of the courage and faith it takes to be an innovator, explorer, or leader of any kind. We must believe in what we are doing in order to do it well. I suspect our capacity for belief is composed of a few other qualities, and I do want to talk about what they are. For now, trust that I have them.
Ian, Samuel and I spent almost an hour on the phone. In detail, and at quite a clip, I described what I had been experiencing since I first began to use the one small Avatar tool. Ian told me Avatar wasn't for everyone, but that I really "got it." After all, I was showing the evidence of its efficacy taking hold in my life. I couldn't have agreed more. What else could explain it? I am special, and I do get it. Faster than many, and deeper than most. He gave me some practical information about the upcoming course, and then reminded me that I had another question.
"Oh, yes. I was filling out the application form, and it asks for a comprehensive list of my physical and emotional traumas. Is it enough to say that there have been many?" I explained carefully that while I understand the program leaders would need to know about any serious mental illness, I can confidently report that I'm stable, and would prefer not to detail my trauma history, as it is, unfortunately, extensive. "I don't really like to lead with that," I quipped.
Ian assured me that it would be just fine to attach a separate document if I needed more space for the list, as it was needed for my safety, and may even be therapeutic to get it all down on paper. "You may see some patterns you haven't noticed before!" he added with a cheer and spark that I adopted as I opened a doc and began logging a lifetime of wounds.
In another window, my rational friend had shared 2 links. I clicked on them and skimmed the headlines. Ah, critiques of Avatar. I returned to the chat, where he'd continued. He did not want to be negative or hurtful, he said, but if I decided to go forward with this, he wouldn't be able to stay quiet about it. In that moment, I considered that our friendship may soon come to an end.
There are times when what we must do is not necessarily celebrated by those around us, when the decisions we must make come from a calling deeper than any attachment to another person, even a person very close. My gut told me one of those times had arrived. I was changing the course of my life, and must be willing to move forward alone if need be. I thanked my friend for his perspective, and assured him that I would consider it.
I didn't lie to him, but I also didn't read it right away. I was mid-trauma list, and it was getting interesting. I did, in fact, see some patterns, but I also struggled with the names of some of the events. In the last years, I've become more vigilant about the language I use to describe my experience, and I wanted to be accurate, neither dismissive nor exaggerated. I finished the list, and another one detailing my psychiatric history. It surprised me that there wasn't also a request for medical history, or even religious background, but I was glad to be done. Just one promise to keep and then I'd send it off.
The first link was a testimonial-style video of several ex-Avatar participants. They were angry and earnest, and their claims were typical: they felt their money was taken, their emotional health was mismanaged, that the teachers of Avatar were not who they said they were. While these claims were important if true, they are so commonly expressed by ex-participants of any wellness program, it was difficult to regard the critics as anything but disappointed haters. Every idea has them, and I'd spent a good long time learning to tune them out.
When I made my second click, all of that learning went moot.
The link sent me to a site dedicated to exposing Avatar for what it is: Scientology Lite. This is not rumor or conjecture. The data checks out. Harry Palmer was, in fact, a Scientologist. The first version of the Avatar program used the same lexicon before Palmer faced legal threats. While seemingly more streamlined, the structure and strategy of the program was nearly identical to what he'd practiced in the Church of Scientology, complete with a top-level secret teaching that amounted to diagnosing all problems as alien infestation.
In case my "believer" status may have painted me gray on this, let me put it in black and white: I am firmly and irreversibly opposed to Scientology. I love many schools of therapy, and distantly revere most religions. I am no stranger to the mysterious, and no enemy of the unknown. I have sincerely participated in practices so unscientific and absurd, I could have my own column in Goop magazine. But I am well-informed about Scientology, and therefore regard it rightfully as a rancid pile of shit. I will not participate in anything expressing neutrality toward it, much less resonance with it. Consider me a Suppressive Person, L Ron. I would sooner join the Church of Satan. (They actually have an impressive human rights advocacy record, btw.)
That said, I would like to tell you that I immediately reversed course, but I can not. Time slowed. I considered my actions one at a time. I did not hit "send" on the full-disclosure application. Bravo, me. Then I thanked my rational friend for sharing the links.
Truth be told, it was still not too late for me to join RealCo, and I was considering it. Minus the Avatar bit. I felt genuine care and connection with Samuel and Caroline. I was beyond grateful for the positivity and movement that had already occurred due to our time together. I believed in the work of RealCo, and in a future with them. But would I be able to trust people who were participating in off-brand Scientology? People who openly disregarded standard professional boundaries? Who was I dealing with?
I closed the computer and went outside. The trash needed taking out, and I needed to hurl something into a dumpster. I was right when I’d imagined, just minutes earlier, that I had arrived at a pivotal moment. I was just wrong about where that pivot would place me. It simply didn’t make sense that I could end up where I started. The light that poured in, the growth and connection, the transformative professional work—was it all phony? Or only half-phony? Is half-phony a thing?
According to the five stages of grief, I was in the bargaining phase, the part where you try to make a deal to lose less. Because I still believed. And while that belief was being carved out of my guts by the grapefruit spoon of facts, I wanted to keep all of it that I could.
I have a hunch that believing is a necessary function of the heart, and am reluctant to place it at odds with the mind. However, it is hard to argue that a hope which can be dismantled with facts should have never been harbored in the first place. What, then, is believing good for?
Believing is good for love. It is good for magic. It is the antidote to fear and the fuel of creation. Believing offers willing minds a portal to possibility. And the willingness is important. In order to believe, we must first choose to trust, and making that choice becomes more difficult each time our faith is injured.
For many, one serious injury to the belief mechanism and it may stop functioning altogether. For the open-hearted, the inevitable series of blows becomes a training of sorts. We learn to place our trust strategically, to vigilantly examine the concrete under the glow of the immaterial. We hone our interior ear, and then, once the facts are gathered and the risks are known, we surrender to the heart’s small spark. Eagerly, and with (sometimes problematically blinding) hope.
In the days that followed, I pored through the Avatar debunk site, reading horror stories of ex-participants like watching a train I just missed hurl itself over a bridge. And then I started over. I sent three freelance proposals, had a few more coffees, and followed up with a contact I’d let fizzle out when I got engaged with RealCo. This morning, I took a second interview for a position I would not have considered before, and was happy to answer standard questions. The conversation was animated and bright, checking off practical matters in a string of green lights that felt energizing.
“What are you looking for in your next step?”
I sensed the interviewer wanted to gauge my interest in the position, but also asked what was driving me—a question I, myself, wanted answered.
As I scrutinized the trap that snagged me, I identified the qualities that made me vulnerable. Namely, the belief that I am not a finished product, coupled with a fierce magnetism for tenderness. Seen in a different light, these ‘flaws’ might be true superpowers for humility and compassion. After all, what great innovation was not the product of a willingness to learn combined with a keen sense of empathy? If I wanted to avoid the quicksand of blind belief completely, I would have to build borders around my mind and heart—borders whose value is hard to deny in an often fake and malicious world. And yet, the thought of pursuing a safe and well-worn path felt lifeless.
I considered the variables to report, and let them go. I do have salary requirements, and preferred locations. There are projects and clients I like more than others. I crave a position with flexibility and opportunity. I seek meaning, influence and growth. But all of those are negotiable. What isn’t? When I listened to myself, and examined my source of guidance, it was brave and foolish and came with a smile.
“I’m looking for a spark in my heart.”