Early in my career I was a bartender (arguably my first counseling job) at my family’s bowling alley. One of the afternoon cocktail waitresses, Cynthia, came in with an unusually bad attitude. In between slamming her purse and other articles down, she told me her seventeen year-old son had accidentally shot himself in the leg while in the custody of the State juvenile system. She was furious that this wilderness program had been so irresponsible in letting kids handle loaded guns. I was equally amazed and disgusted. What kind of juvenile detention system could be so stupid?
Cynthia had a wealthy boyfriend with whom she flew on trips every weekend in his private plane. Coming from a rather poor background, it was an incredible treat for her to fly each weekend. Her son was incarcerated in the northern part of the state, making it a four or five hour drive for her to see him. We took a break in our cussing the foolish state juvenile system to plan a change of schedule for her. When I asked her if she needed to leave today (Monday), she told me that Bill was going to fly her up there on Thursday. That miserable rescheduling chore cancelled, we continued our tirade about the juvenile authorities until I left for my commute back home at 6 pm. An hour later, as I got out of the car, anxious to share this incredible story of negligence with my wife, a wave of nauseated disbelief washed over me. For the past eight hours I joined my co-workers in blasting the juvenile system, and never, not once, did it occur to me: What kind of a mother would know that her son was shot through the thigh and wait four days so she could have a convenient flight rather than immediately drive to see her injured son? I was so horrified at what had happened to me, I put my hand on the hood of my car for support. I was dizzy with horror: I was becoming my environment. Eight hours a day, five days a week I worked with people who were transforming me—or rather, I was allowing them to transform me into one of them. By not thinking independently, by not weighing my values, morals and even merely my individual tastes, I was absorbing my environment.
In the years that have followed, I have noted many environmental influences. You can go to a conference and be surrounded by people who like to “play” when they are away from home. You can work a job that everyone does the bare minimum of what is expected. Rather than providing leadership and inspiration for your family, you could surrender to an “every man for himself” environment and have no family unity, activities, or even time together. The only defense against becoming an Incredible Absorbing Person is to know what’s important to you. Know what’s right and live your life accordingly.
John S. Sommer
Licensed Clinical Social Worker