How Cooperation Can Lead to Champagne..

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If you had to have a champagne toast with just one person at the end of your divorce, who would it be?

My opinion is that if you have done it right, that person would be your ex-spouse.  Picture two glass flutes, filled 2/3s of the way up with golden hued liquid, bubbles rising to the surface bringing effervescence and sweetness, clinking gently together as two people smile above the rims.  “Congratulations, team mate,” they say to each other – “it has been a tough game, but we won!”

What game, exactly, did they win?  Isn’t one of them the loser, and therefore the other the winner?  Or aren’t they both losers, since they apparently “failed” at their marriage?

I guess that depends on what game they were playing.  In my opinion, the rules of the game go something like this:

1. You must become legally divorced from your spouse, but neither one of you know the marriage and family laws and procedures in your state.

2.  You have a limited amount of finances available to you both, the remainder of which must be divided between you when the game ends.

3. You have accumulated certain amount of children, friends, belongings, and debts; all of which must somehow be divided between you.

4.  The qualified experts in you state pay their bills – put food on their tables – by getting paid an hourly rate to advise you in your divorce.

Ready? Set. Go!!

If the parties work against each other they will end up with the bulk of their assets in the hands of the lawyers.  If they work together a little bit they may be able to salvage most of their assets without increasing their debts. 

The more they work together, the more they will be able to keep solid relationships with their children and friends. 

There is also an aspect of the old puzzle “The Prisoners’ Dilemma:”

“Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a deal. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there is a catch … If both prisoners testify against each other both will be sentenced to two years in jail.” (Quoted from Wikipedia)

Not mentioned here but implied, if neither prisoner testifies against the other, then both go free.

The parties benefit by cooperating, and play a risky game between having it all or losing it all by working against each other. Just like in a divorce proceeding.  As long as the parties refuse to work against each other; they keep control of most of their assets.  But, if one spouse intends to proceed amicably while the other is ruthless, there may be a clear winner and a clear loser.

What is the most major advantage that the divorcing spouses have over the gang members described above? The divorcing spouses have the right to communicate with each other if they so choose.  And, if they are able to maintain a few open and honest lines of communication just for long enough to get through the divorce—they win!

And the champagne flows.

What We Love:  The person who got you into this siutation os the one who can get you out – so long as you are willing to work together.

 

Don’t underestimate the value of your in-laws…

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What is the value of keeping your in-laws in a divorce?

I recently heard a woman make an argument that she should be entitled to increased alimony because she lives closer to her in-laws than to her own parents.   Many states use a rubric of factors to determine alimony. Factors may include  length of the marriage, causes of the breakdown of the marriage, each party’s education/station/ability to earn a living, age and needs of the minor children.

One factor I have never seen listed in an alimony calculation, however, is geographical location of grandparents.  I don’t believe it is something we will see any time soon.  We live in a time when it is common place for people to relocate far from family for work, exploration, curiosity, advancement, and countless other reasons.  So there is no special attention paid to how close or far one lives from one’s parents.

But, the woman does have a point.  Her parents happen to live in Mexico, and she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. They are in the process of getting divorced and she is keenly feeling her lack of support system.  If she lived close to her parents and siblings and cousins, there would likely be someone around to take the kids for a few hours; or help her move into her new apartment; to drop by uninvited and unexpected with a pizza and a bottle of wine.

Sure, friends may be able to pick up some of this slack.  But only very good friends, and not necessarily without strings attached. Not the way family would.  But what makes her situation more difficult is that up until very recently, she did have family in town – her in-laws.  She was used to the informal, always at each other’s disposal, give-and-take of family.  When you have spent a certain number of years not having to pay a sitter for every little night out, each annoying errand, or when you just need to go away overnight, there is a shock factor that comes along with suddenly having to shell out $10/hour for each of those “meaningless” excursions.

What about family holidays?  Until now, every major holiday included her children looking forward to aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laughing together at someone’s house.  They knew there would be gifts and favorite foods, “inside” jokes, and familiar arguments.

Now, she will have to choose if her children will spend holidays with their extended family or with her. She might need to take her kids to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, or cook her own Christmas feast to make them feel like things are still as good as they used to be.  Or she might want to fly herself and the kids down to Mexico, so that she can be with her own family during the holidays.  But, while being with her own parents and siblings might make her feel comfortable, it will likely have the opposite effect on her children, for whom everything will feel foreign and new.

Or, if she believes the best interest of her children is to keep having holidays the way they always did, then she might spend every holiday all alone, watching the clock until it is time to go pick them up again.

Instead of increasing her alimony, which might not even solve most of these issues, there is a less expensive and more obviously available solution:  keeping her in-laws.  Those people who are inextricably linked to the last person in the world she wants to see right now may hold the ticket to her salvation.  But, depending on the details of the divorce, they might not be particularly interested in seeing her right now.

They have likely heard her husband’s side of the story. They might believe that she alone is at fault in the breakdown of the marriage.   They may have been willing to keep an open mind in her regard at the beginning of the divorce, but by now might feel that she is being stubborn or greedy or hostile in the divorce proceedings, even if it is her attorney calling the shots instead of her.

How, then, could she bridge that chasm?  Is there any hope for her of replacing her far-away family for herself and her children with the people she knows best in New Jersey?  Yes. There is a chance. That chance is in her hands.  It is up to her to reach out to her in-laws.  Individually, if necessary, to mend any broken fences, and say things as simple as, “I hope that we will still be family, and that my children will always feel as close to you as they do today.”  And, of course, she could take advantage of every opportunity to be kinder and more generous than she needs to be – both when her in-laws are watching, and when they are not.  In matters related directly to the divorce, and in unrelated matters. She could make a point of always something positive about her ex-husband, so that everyone knows there are no hard feelings. And so that no one is worried what will happen if they are both at the same dinner.

This might sound difficult, especially if she has just cause to be truly angry at her husband.  But we do the same thing in dozens of social situations all year long at parties, work, and school: pretending to be nicer, more forgiving, or more generous than we really are.  And sometimes, if we are very lucky, those good feelings catch up with us and stop being pretend emotions. Sometimes acting as if you are a benevolent person actually makes you become one – inside and out.

What We Love: The loving family you seek might be closer than you think.

In olden days, times were hard..

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In olden days times were hard.

Our grandparents (or their grandparents) left countries where they were persecuted (or hungry, or poor, or worse). They gathered the belongings they could, clutched their children close to them, and climbed onto giant ocean liners to travel in extreme conditions for months and arrive in a new country where they did not know a soul, usually didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know how they would survive.

But they knew that they were giving themselves and more importantly their children and grand children a chance at a better life. Those brave people risked everything they knew. Each and every one of them, said to himself or herself, “there is more to life than this and I will find it for my children & myself, or die trying.”

And then they arrived in America where they were not given a house or a car. Sometimes their advanced degrees were meaningless. Sometimes they found family or sympathetic strangers to help them and guide them.  Sometimes they found unsavory characters and learned hard lessons.

But they succeeded. We live in a safe and prosperous country. We have plumbing, electricity, education, food, cars. Things the middle class in most countries still do not have. Our ancestors were right to risk it all and bring us here. And when we stop to consider what they faced and the choices they made, we are deeply grateful to them.

It may seem that we do not have to make the same types of choices in our own lifetimes. After all, we are already here. But every day in middle class homes all over America, people are living in hostile countries and are weighing the decision to risk it all and immigrate to a land of freedom and opportunity. These are the people who are considering, or experiencing, divorce.

Brave men and women are standing in their homes right now, and saying to themselves, “there is more to life than this and I will find it for my children & myself.”  (Luckily the “…or die trying part” is not part of the usual formula for divorce.)

And, as they begin their journeys, it is up to them to decide what they want to meet them on the other side.   Remember, you do not “need” a house, or a car to begin again and become successful.  It is up to these people to decide if they will keep as much cash as possible, or spend it on lawyers’ fees.  Will they hold on to their old house or car, or let that all be liquidated so they can travel more lightly?

Will they see the big picture – that freedom and happiness for this generation and for the subsequent generations, are of utmost importance? And when will they see it? Early in the process, so mediation goes smoothly?  Or only after they have sacrificed everything to the battle?

What We Love: In olden days times were hard; but in modern days life can get better as soon as we are ready to let it.

Staying Together for the Children

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“Staying together for the children,” my personal pet peeve. If you want to benefit your children – show them how one gets divorced with grace, dignity, generosity, and resilience. The WAY people handle their divorces is what will influence their families for generations. When you have an opportunity, I recommend the Childrens’ Bill of Rights, below. I frequently have my clients hang one on mom’s fridge & one on dad’s fridge.
©AAMT REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

CHILDREN’S BILL OF RIGHTS
– Every kid has rights, particularly when mom and dad are splitting up. Below are some things parents shouldn’t forget – and kids shouldn’t let them – when the family is in the midst of a break-up.
– You have the right to love both your parents. You also have the right to be loved by both of them. That means you shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to see your dad or your mom at any time. It’s important for you to have both parents in your life, particularly during difficult times such as a break-up of your parents.
– You do not have to choose one parent over the other. If you have an opinion about which parent you want to live with, let it be known. But nobody can force you to make that choice. If your parents can’t work it out, a judge may make the decision for them.
– You’re entitled to all the feelings you’re having. Don’t be embarrassed by what you’re feeling. It is scary when your parents break up, and you’re allowed to be scared. Or angry. Or Sad. Or whatever.
– You have the right to be in a safe environment. This means that nobody is allowed to put you in danger, either physically or emotionally. If one of your parents is hurting you, tell someone – either your other parent or a trusted adult like a teacher.
– You don’t belong in the middle of your parents’ break-up. Sometimes your parents may get so caught up in their own problems that they forget that you’re just a kid, and that you can’t handle their adult worries. If they start putting you in the middle of their dispute, remind them that it’s their fight, not yours.
– Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are still part of your life. Even if you’re living with one parent, you can still see relatives on your other parent’s side. You’ll always be a part of their lives, even if your parents aren’t together anymore.
– You have the right to be a child. Kids shouldn’t worry about adult problems. Concentrate on your school work, your friends, activities, etc. Your mom and dad just need your love. They can handle the rest.
– IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT AND DON’T BLAME YOURSELF.

Great, right? It is a good idea to discuss this list with your children. If the divorcing adults and children can all have the discussion together, even better. Children are not too young to understand these rights; they will only absorb what is pertinent to them. Children are not too old to discuss these rights with their parents. It can open up some pretty surprising – and helpful – dialogues.
The key, of course, is communication. Children who are encouraged to speak honestly and openly about their parents’ divorce will have an easier time getting through it. But, even more importantly, people who learn from a young age to be good communicators are less likely to divorce in their own marriages as they get older.

What We Love: Divorce is an opportunity to be the best parent your child has ever known.

Perspective

ImagePerspective. I recently met with a group of marital and family therapists.  Perspective is their job, right?  They  listen to a woman wonder whether she should divorce a man who loves her unconditionally but doesn’t communicate well, she leaves the therapist’s  office and a man walks in whose wife is physically and verbally abusive, but he would never dream of using the “D” word.

                  Here are some guidelines I have noticed.  The toughest decision is the very first one: in or out?  Do I want to stay in this marriage, and work through whatever this is, or have I given everything there is to give?    I think this should be the factors that they have to balance. Not – how much will it cost? How long will it take? Will it be painful?  The answers are all worst case scenario – it will take longer than you want;  it will cost more than you can afford, and – yes – it will be painful.

                  So what? All of those are the same answers one could give about having children: costs too much, takes too long, definitely painful (whether you are the mother or the father.)  But those are not the deciding factors on whether or not to have children.  Or we would have a much more sparsely populated planet.

                  Frequently, there is one person who wants a divorce and one person who is completely blind-sided by it.  In general, the person who is blind-sided is the one who was getting the good deal all along.  The person who wants a divorce has probably grappled and struggled with the decision for months, if not years, before finally deciding that the problems are insurmountable.

                  Obviously, this is not always true.  Plenty of selfish louts decide for reasons of pure self-interest to get out of the marriage.  And plenty of devoted hard-working spouses want to stay together anyway.

                  The threats usually start when someone is trying to take away the good deal.

                  The goal of a good divorce is to get through it as quickly, painlessly, and inexpensively as possible, while maintaining one’s ability to move forward in life.  Too often, we see people who are afraid of “losing everything” in the divorce, instead spending everything in the divorce.  When it’s all over, what is the difference?  They would rather see their lawyer make $25k or $30k on a divorce than get one penny less than their fair share.  By the time the smoke clears, the lawyers have each picked up $30,000 and the nest egg is gone.  No wonder people are afraid to get divorced!

                  Ironically, the people who have the best divorces are the ones who are confident in their ability to survive it and move on.  Whereas, the ones who are afraid that it will devastate them, are frequently the ones who make things worse by hanging on to their fear and anger.  Please help your clients visualize the outcome – a new smaller, cleaner condo; some money in the bank; being poised and gracious at the kid’s graduations, recitals & weddings, etc.

                  People who think they will fight to the death over any given matter, suddenly lose their will to fight when all of the money is gone, and by then, of course, it is too late.  And not just for financial reasons.  It is harder to respect someone who has dragged you over the coals to get at a family heirloom, or keep you from seeing your children, or even your pet.

Divorces can last years, and the longer they last the more damage they do, and the more money they cost.

One major reason, is that the legal track cannot really get ahead of the emotional track.  Until both parties are tired enough of the fighting, it is possible to prolong the process for years.  I have seen people have custody battles over a dog, an engagement ring, and – no lie – a weed whacker.  If you feel the need to fight, you can.

What We Love:   Perspective.  It is never too late to get some.

Matching Program

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If I  could remind my clients of just one thing while they are going through the divorce process, I would say it is this: That is NOT your money that you are handing over to the lawyers.  That money belongs to your  heirs.  That is your  kids’ money, and 85 – 90 % of the time, the only reason the clients  are spending it is because their bruised egos are making the decisions, not their hearts, and usually not their brains.

If I could restructure divorce laws the first thing I would do is put a matching program in place. For every dollar a divorcing adult spends on attorneys, court fees, depositions, and expert witnesses, they have to put a matching dollar in a savings account for their children. That savings account may have to go to child therapists, or special vacations to make up for hurt feelings, or might end up being a college tuition fund, if all goes well.

It would accomplish two things: first, it would keep the emphasis where it really belongs in these matters: on the next generation, the only true victims of divorce.  And second, it would make the litigants run out of money faster.  People really start getting reasonable and finding common ground after all of the money runs out.  My question is, if they were going to get to a reasonably hideous compromise anyway, why not do it at the beginning, instead of waiting until there is no more money?

One major reason, is that the legal track cannot really get ahead of the emotional track.  Until both parties are tired enough of the fighting, it is possible to prolong the process for years.  I have seen people have custody battles over a dog, an engagement ring, and – no lie – a weed whacker.  If you feel the need to fight, you can.

BUT, if you have a reasonable attorney who is trying to get you to the end of the process with as much of your sanity and bank account intact as possible, the million little fights can go away more quickly and easily.  Even more so if there are two reasonable attorneys in the matter.

It is true that if one party is intent on fighting and wracking-up bills, it is more difficult for the other party to keep the costs de minimis.  But, that is not to say it is impossible.  Pro se (or self-representing) parties can save a lot in lawyer fees.  I would recommend that they have an attorney on retainer for advice & counsel if not for the actual practice so that they know what is true and what is bluffing from opposing counsel.

The biggest key to keeping costs low against a litigious attorney is complete transparency.  Try to get a list of required and requested discovery as early as possible, either from opposing counsel or your  own attorney – and hand over absolutely everything, and keep sending it in as often as new statements come out.

The quickest way a litigious attorney can increase lawyer fees is by making unreasonable claims for discovery, and then going to court for non-compliance. Be meticulously, over-zealously compliant.  Show everything, and there will be fewer trips to court, and fewer grounds for accusations.

What we love:. As long as there is a desire by either party to stay engaged – to keep fighting, if that’s what it takes, the process continues.  But, as soon as the emotional issues are resolved, the divorce takes care of itself.

I Bit Off More Than I Could Chew

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I bit off more than I could chew.

My kids’ school and their extra-curricular activities, my book group, speaking opportunities and volunteer work, my husband’s travel schedule, social lives for all of us, and – oh, yeah, my job — each grew bigger than I was prepared to handle all at once. The next thing I knew, my blog was down to once a week, then once a month, then somewhat sporadic, and then, after my Christmas 2012 post, I stopped.  My blogging voice went silent in my head, and the posts froze in mid-December.

Ever go into a mall with little kids? Ever get so sick of the phrase “Can I get that?” that you almost wish you could go deaf?  It’s not really their fault. They just want everything they see, and have not yet learned how to turn it off.   Not like us Grown-ups, right?

Or, is it…

I just finished a divorce. Nice people, amicable divorce.  They appreciate each other more from a distance than they ever did when they were still married. I am happy for them and their kids that their divorce did not cost a fortune or take years to complete.  But, there were moments during the process where I thought we might never get to the end.

The Wife wasn’t ready to get divorced as quickly as the husband was.  So, she just kept looking for the thing that would make her happy.  The mature woman’s version of, “Can I get that?”

He offered alimony for half the length of the marriage – a standard measurement – she wanted unlimited alimony.

He offered to take all of the marital debts.  She wanted him to also pay off her car.

He offered her the time share. She also wanted his frequent flyer miles.

Eventually, I told them to stop talking to each other. I said, “If he offered you the skin off his body right now, it would not be enough.”  They finally saw what I meant. We took a break from negotiations.

And, after a few weeks of no more skin peeling, and no more “can I get that?”  We met again, reached some reasonable compromises, and finished their divorce.

I think all of my running around from activity to volunteer to dinners to book groups was my own version of “Can I get that?”  A giant plate piled high with more than my life could possibly handle.

And then we all learned our lesson. Some things just matter more than others.  For me that order is family, work, writing.  In that order.  The rest is a tie for “later.”  For my client, the order is her kids first.  She decided that the amount of money she takes away with her matters less than her kids’ happiness.  She can always earn more money; but she can never get back these moments of their childhood. She would rather spend them focused on the children than fighting with her (now ex-) husband.

My client and I both got to the same emotional moment, the one that stops saying “Can I get that?” and instead says, “This is good.  Let me focus on what is good.”  Not only are she and I both better off for it, so are our children, our families, our friends, and our jobs.

What We Love:  The clarity to see what matters and release what does not.

Merry Christmas – Now get the heck out!

"Merry Christmas. Peace. Your Gift To The...
“Merry Christmas. Peace. Your Gift To The Nation.” – NARA – 512646 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

End of Year thoughts on Divorce

If you have not already served your spouse with divorce papers; why not wait until the holidays are over?  Good divorces start with a good beginning. “Merry Christmas-get the heck out!” is not a good beginning.

If you are already in the midst of it, consider taking a hiatus, or calling a cease-fire between now and January 2nd.  Promise each other that for the next 4 weeks neither one of you will bring up any hot button topics.  These vary by family, but if you know that there is an open question about, say, alimony or child support, make it your business not to discuss anything related to these topics for 4 weeks.

Divorces rarely take more than a year, so this is likely the only time you will have to combine your end-of-year expectations and obligations with a divorce.  This one year, you can make it as pleasant on yourself and your family as possible.

I know it is not easy. Depending on how enmeshed you are in fighting, every topic could be a potential land mine right now.  But, a little bit of skill and tact (as though you were speaking to the overwhelmed clerk at a busy retail outlet) might help keep things calm when everything else in your life is at its most hectic.

When making holiday and party arrangements; consider both sides.  Even if your parents are flying in for the first time in three years and you want your kids to get to have Christmas eve dinner; Christmas morning presents, and Christmas day traditions all with them.  Consider this – if your children are fortunate enough to have two sets of grandparents (or even two parents) who both want to see their little faces light up each moment of the holidays, then maybe that is a greater gift than anything they will unwrap.

Be kinder than usual to each other – but don’t give in on absolutely everything – share the holidays in a way that would make sense even if you were not mad at each other.  If you are probably going to be the custodial parent at the end of the divorce, then your spouse might be afraid that this is his or her last year with the kids.  Be a little flexible about timing.  If someone is thirty to sixty minutes late returning children, consider it “on time,” and make the best of the time you have left.

By letting go of your anger, frustration, and disappointment for this short four week period, you will be giving the best gift possible – peace of mind.  And the person to whom you will be giving this gift is the one who most needs you to be your best right now: you.

What we Love:  There are so many demands on you time and attention right now, give yourself the gift of letting this one thing wait until January…when everyone can think and speak a little more clearly.

GRATITUDE IN A POST-SANDY WORLD

The eastern seaboard of the United States has just come through a major storm and its after-effects. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without electricity and more are dealing with the results and damages.  More than a hundred people are reported dead.  Those of us who “only” lost heat, or electricity, or cell service or some work days/school days, are feeling pretty grateful and fortunate right about now.  And, considering that it is November, it is just about that time to start being deeply thankful for our blessings.

Yes, even if you are going through the turmoil and disorientation of a divorce.  This year, as always, I am collecting some of my favorite stories of the post-divorce possibilities. These are the stories that make me feel a sense of gratitude and hope. These are typically people who kept their wits about them during the divorce process enough to be civil adults with each other afterwards.  (The names are fictitious, the stories are true.)

“Rickey” owns a restaurant in town. A few days after Hurricane Sandy I saw him at work looking unshaven and a more bedraggled than usual.  I asked if he had electricity and water at his house.  He said he did not; he lives in one of the towns near here that spent a few days with 100% of its citizens in power outages.  But, some of the guys at his place had been able to find him a generator that very morning.

“I bet you are excited to get home and get it juiced up,” I said. 

He chuckled, “not quite,” he said.  “I had them bring it over to my ex-wife’s house, so she and the kids can use it.  I’ll wait until they go out tomorrow, and see if I can go take a hot shower while they are out.”

“Annie” hosts her family for Thanksgiving every year. She and her two sisters rotate who hosts each of the major family holidays, and she is always happy to have a large crowd for Thanksgiving.  Being the youngest of the three sisters, her children are also the youngest of the 8 cousins and they get very excited to have all of their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents at their house for the day.

This year, the divorced middle sister is bringing her new fiancé, which surprised me, since I know that the kids all love her ex-husband, Uncle Mike.

“Oh, Mike will be there, too,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without his pumpkin pie.  He is very happy for my sister that she is moving on in her life, but none of us sees any reason why that should mean we lose Mike in the process.”

“Brandy” lives in my neighborhood with her husband “John,” John’s 11 year old son “Johnny” from  his first marriage, and 3 year old “Alyssa” – Brandy and John’s daughter.  John’s first wife, “Tracey” lives in an area of our town which lost their power for 6 long days.  On Halloween night I was out trick-or-treating with my kids when who did we see going door-to-door together but Brandy, Johnny, and little Alyssa, all in costumes.  Alyssa was being carried by a woman in a witch’s costume, so it took me a moment to recognize her.  But, of course, it was Johnny’s mom – Tracey.  Alyssa calls her Aunt Tracey. She ate most of her meals and took most of her showers at Brandy and John’s house the week she had no electricity at home. So, it made perfect sense for her to be out in our neighborhood carrying Alyssa from house to house helping her collecting candy and treats.

For more of these anecdotes, please visit my post at http://www.blogsondivorce.com.  And may you and your loved ones be inspired this year to think not only of your divorce or separation in November 2012, but of all of the Thanksgivings, and Halloweens, and even hurricanes to come.  Those of us who survived this storm have a unique opportunity to recalibrate our priorities right now, and to rethink what the words “family,” and “emergency” and “necessity” truly mean.

WHAT WE LOVE:  The rewards that come from doing the right thing, even when no one would blame you for doing the wrong thing.

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