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February-Illegitimi non carborundum

February— Illegitimi non carborundum

There is a myth in my family that the Champion family motto is Nil Desperandum—Latin for “do not despair.” There is some old family silverware that includes these words on a crest, but my branch of the family stems from a scion of a respectable family in Quebec City who was sent out west to preserve the family’s good name. I suspect that there is a lot more of that family silver back in QC than there is out here!

The myth continues that my father, who was six when World War II broke out, was told by his older brothers that the family motto meant “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” a phrase popularized during World War II as illegitimi non carborundum. Evidently a British intelligence officer coined this “dog Latin” phrase, using the Latin word for “grinding down”, the carborundum part. The illegitimi part is self-explanatory and clearly “non” is the negative case—don’t let the illegitimate ones grind you down! Then an American General, known as “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell adopted it as his personal motto which brought it into popular usage and in time it evolved into a Harvard University fight song.

As we head into February, the longest 28-day period in any given year, compounded by a pandemic with only slight easings of public gathering regulations, I am adopting illegitimi non carborundum as my personal motto (even if it isn’t my family’s real motto.) This go-round we are not fighting against other members of the human race (thank heavens!) but against a virus and its mutations, delays in vaccinations, and numerous weaknesses in our healthcare systems for elderly and vulnerable populations (illegitimi all!)

But we are also fighting ennui, boredom, burnout and exhaustion, after eleven months of permutations of a locked down society. We wish that we could do more to advance the mass vaccination process, but as individuals and as members of society, our primary job is to stay home as much as is humanly possible.

It can be hard to sustain hope, yet hope is critical to our well-being. A 2019 study examined the relationship between hope and subjective well-being, finding that passively having positive expectations has less impact on well-being than a more active hopeful approach. So we must not only try not to despair, but actively take steps to keep help alive.

We’ve all heard the expression that hope is not a plan. It seems that there is now empirical research that confirms this.

So if we are stuck at home with minimal social interaction and many of our favourite activities are offside, how can we keep our hope alive during the too-short days of an interminable month?

Psychologist Karyn Hall has six suggestions for finding hope. Her suggestions pre-date the arrival of the COVID illegitimi, so I am adding some social distancing ideas.

1.  Find a clear path. Dr. Hall suggests mapping out each step between where you are and where you want to be.

This is trickier in our current climate, as what most of us want is for things to go back to normal, to get to see family, friends and colleagues in person. But we can’t control when this will happen, and we have to try to live the Serenity Prayer, accepting the things we cannot change.

Although winter during a pandemic can be bleak, we know that we will have access to reasonably effective vaccines over the next year and that our society will reopen as it becomes safe to do so.

Where do you want to be in your career and your life when we have more flexibility again? Is your goal to advance in your current organization, or is it perhaps to shift gears or go in a different direction? What can you work on now that will equip you for that goal?

Or do you want to make changes in your personal life—can you draw a path between where you are, housebound in the pandemic, and what you want your life to look like post-pandemic?

For many people, the pandemic lockdown provided time away from the intensity of their “office lives” to think about what they really want. When we are caught up in the urgencies of our lives and practices, it is hard to find the time to think about whether we are on course. Some people—especially those with extensive family commitments—may not have had that luxury: introspection versus sleep? Sleep is going to win much of the time.

We hear lawyers saying that they want to have better work-life balance when the new normal arrives. Visualize what that, or another goal, looks like. What small steps can your take? If your goal is to travel and you will have to save money to make this happen, can you identify one way of saving money that you will put towards your dream trip? Many of us are spending less money on barista coffees. When you choose not to go out for coffee, acknowledge that you are five dollars closer to your globetrotting adventure.

A step doesn’t have to be big or intimidating but you will feel more hopeful about your goals when you take even small steps towards it.

2.  Look for role models and how they have implemented solutions. Dr. Hall advises that learning about people who have overcome adversity can help us see that we may be able to do so, as well. She recommends surrounding yourself with people who will support and encourage you.

She mentions Project Hope Exchange, an online community where people can share stories and words of encouragement.

At Assist, we can help you with peer support from an Alberta lawyer who has overcome a type of adversity you may be facing. Our wonderful volunteers are happy to share their learnings, support and strategies. In the pre-COVID world, we used geography to match people so that they could meet in person. One silver lining to the pandemic illegitimi is that we can connect you to volunteers across the province since in-person meetings have fallen away. This increases the pool of people who can support you! Call Eileen to learn more (1-877-737-5508.)

3.  Do what you know you can do. Dr. Hall recommends taking one step outside of your routine when you encounter despair:

"When you are in despair, taking one step that is out of your routine can help break the sense of powerlessness you have. Make your bed. Cook dinner. Talk to a friend. Take a step you know you can do and that action can make a difference over time. Keep doing it, and then try to add more actions.
Overcoming the inertia of helplessness can help you build hope."

I don’t know about you, but my routine is pretty restricted right now. There are many days that I do not go out of my house (especially if it is snowing or is cold!). However, one thing that I have started doing recently is getting dressed as if I were going downtown to work. This caused a bit of shopping for clothes that fit and were comfortable but also professional (and on sale) which was fun in and of itself.

Inertia is a powerful force. We won’t be able to go from 0 to 60 without training, so identifying small ways that you can force yourself out of your housebound routine will be important for your return to the in-person world.

4.  Perform acts of kindness. Dr. Hall says that doing acts of kindness to someone else helps build connection and that acting in kindness triggers a serotonin release, so our mood and outlook improve. She also asks us to stop judging ourselves and to be kind to ourselves.

Little acts of kindness are meaningful. I am so grateful when I look outside to see if the recycling or garbage truck has been by and realize that not only have my bins been emptied, but my kind neighbour has returned them to their resting place beside my garage. This doesn’t breach any physical interaction rules and it makes me smile. Now I have to figure out how I can reciprocate, or perhaps do something for someone else.

One simple act of kindness that we can do for ourselves is to release ourselves from the stranglehold of perfectionism. Most of us don’t hold other people to standards of perfection but we set impossible standards for ourselves. We can give ourselves permission to be excellent instead for most things that matter.

Prospectuses and Court of Appeal factums (and client names!) need to be of extremely high-quality and error-free, but there are other tasks that don’t require the same level of reworking. If you find a typo in an email you just send to a colleague, apologize and make a joke. These things happen to all of us in the real world. Save your energy and angst for things that really matter. This does not mean creating sloppy documents; it means using an appropriate degree of professionalism for the task.

5.  Turn to your faith. According to Dr. Hall, hope is allied with our faith (if we have one) and connecting with a higher power can help us feel less alone. She encourages people who are struggling with their faith to reach out to someone from their faith that they respect who can share how they addressed their own struggles and inspire you.

While we cannot gather in person for our normal faith celebrations, many faith communities have online or modified events. Assist is compiling a list of faith-related lawyer groups as well so that law students, articling students and lawyers can easily reach out to a community of lawyers who share their faith. Please feel free to share any that you know about so we can make our list (to be posted on the website) as fulsome as possible.

6.   Practice mindfulness. Dr. Hall advocates practicing mindfulness to stop our minds from slipping into memories of past pain or misfortune which can interfere with our ability to see positive events or remember that you were ever happy. She says that we find peace when we focus on the present.

Assist has this one covered! Every Tuesday at noon, we have a free 15-minute mindfulness break online, led by an Edmonton lawyer who is a certified mindfulness/yoga instructor. Sessions include breathing, visualization and relaxation exercises. We turn our cameras off so no one has to feel self-conscious and perfectionistic standards do not apply—if your mind wanders, you just acknowledge it and join back in. Please check us out on Tuesdays!


When the February blues start to set in, remember that you can keep hope alive through simple activities. And don’t let the illegtimi get you down!