Category Archives: PHILOSOPHY

A MANLY HUG

I witnessed a touching moment in court the other day.  A burly guard was sharing his wife’s birth stories with a nervous lawyer parent-to-be whose wife was due that very day.  The guard was full of assurances that all would be well with the birth of the lawyer’s first son – that the hospital was a good one, and that the lawyer was sure to arrive on time for the birth: “First babies don’t come out all that fast,” he smiled.

This guard is a sometimes brusque but big-hearted man who looks very traditional and set in his ways.  He is young, but it seems he has been there forever.  He keeps lawyers, witnesses, victims, and interpreters safe along with the accused, as people are ferried into and out of custody in a hectic room with a door to the public.  Sometimes he yells at us to quiet down, or to get out of the line of sight, so he has a clear path to any in-custody person who is standing before the judge.  To see him sharing birth stories and giving encouragement, even a manly back-slapping hug, to this expectant parent, was very touching for me.

Why?  Because the lawyer is a lesbian, awaiting a beautiful baby boy that her wife is carrying, in legal marriage, and the jail guard recognized and identified with the nervous expectant parent that he had been, in the same situation.  He and the lawyer are both the primary breadwinners, and will forego a lot of their time with the children in order to make sure they have a feathered nest and some security, with their stay-at-home wives doing the bulk of the daily care-taking, as part of what they each hope will be lifelong partnerships.

There are a lot of chicken vs. egg (which comes first) philosophizing about whether legal changes cause social change or only the reverse.  My experience is that they both cause and lead to each other.  In the case of the legalization of gay marriage, the fact that any person of any gender can stand in open court and talk joyfully with a rather traditional jail guard about their wife expecting a baby has some basis in the historic changing of the law, creating an equality that did not exist before, and that the law has allowed to emerge, like the chick from the egg.  And it makes me happy to see.

It kind of makes me want to hug somebody, or pat them on the back, or at least shake their hand.

We are all in this together, and the law is on our side.  I am so happy about that.

 

DOES YOUR HEAD STILL HURT?

My dear old Dad used to have a good trick he would play on me whenever I told him I had a headache.  He would punch me in the arm, and then ask me, “Does your head still hurt?”  If I said yes, he would punch me a little harder, and ask me again.  Eventually, by comparison, my head didn’t really hurt.  It sounds mean, but it was strangely comforting to me.  And I still laugh about it when I remember.  Dad was telling me to tough it out, and that he knew I would be okay.  It wasn’t a lack of sympathy; it was a strengthening shot in the arm – in the form of a loving jolt.

What I learned from that besides not to complain to my Dad, was that everything is relative.  I used to think interpreting was stressful.  If I did three full days in a row, I would need to sleep twelve hours to recover.  My mind would race with words and phrases; bits and pieces of evidence and documentation would float through my mind as I tried to fall asleep, and I would wake up considering certain ways to suppress evidence.  Then I had the opportunity to work for a couple months in a law office.  And it was such a headache!

It was incredible.  Piles of paper everywhere.  Every minute counting.  Things to be filed by noon that had to be copied, but then I couldn’t get the copier to work, or the “final” had a typo.  Ten hours to do something that should take twenty, but it had to be done today, and it also had to be good.  Had to be excellent.  Because there was going to be an opposing counsel on the other side, taking anything I did apart with a fine-toothed comb – or a hatchet.  The office pulsated with a constant aching fear of not doing enough – not being fast enough – not being thorough.  Or was that just my beating heart?  Talk about stress.

Finding a one-page document in the vast database, for a rusty old hag such as myself, might take an hour, but could I in good conscience bill for an hour of my time for something someone else, a mythical person, might have done in five minutes?  Worse yet, what if that mythical person actually existed, in the form of a perfect legal secretary slash office manager slash babysitter slash paralegal, who could do it all faster and better, except she is too overworked?  Help!

If I made this office sound disorganized, I have misled you.  I am talking about a well-run machine with a brilliant pair of lawyers running it, a perfect complement of law clerk, law student, contract lawyer, and Queen Bee.  Nothing was wrong except that I could never be done.  I could never be sure there wasn’t one more edit needed, or more document to find and attach, one more case to find on Westlaw, read the footnotes for, and delve into those footnoted cases, before making a decision on something quite important.   Something that might affect a lot of people, or change the law, or win a case for a client.  Or lose it.  Argh.

The relentless nature of litigation law firms is that you are constantly gearing up for fights you might not, in the end, fight.  You are pushing to get everything ready, line up experts, find more evidence, depose more witnesses, on a case that might settle or get dismissed on summary judgment.  But you have to prepare for the worst, time and time again.   There are strict deadlines on your trial schedule, and if you don’t present, for example, the background information of one of your expert witnesses along with the substance of her proposed testimony, you simply cannot use it, even if you already paid her thousands of dollars.  Meanwhile the opposing counsel is finding ways to make your life miserable by demanding you produce things you don’t have, or bringing you to court to compel production.  High alert doesn’t even begin to describe the tension.

But like my interactions with my wonderful Dad, I found something quite interesting on the days I went to court to interpret while moonlighting in the law office.  Interpreting had suddenly become restful by comparison.  The interspersed days of court were pleasant.  They were interesting, and yet soothing.  And best of all, I knew when I was done on every single encounter.  The lawyer, the judge, the suspect, the witness, or whoever else, would stop talking.  I would finish saying what they just said.  Then I was done.  There was nothing else for me to do.  Sure, sometimes interpreters walk off wondering about how best to say driveway, or non-moving violation.  But I find now that there is a distinct and renewed pleasure in interpreting, by contrast.

I am truly glad that I didn’t finish law school.  It would have caused me so many headaches.  And my dear old Dad is no longer around to punch me in the arm and remind me that I can handle it.

BEING SORRY ENOUGH

When I was a child, if my siblings and I got into any kind of a spat, our mother forced us to say we were sorry, and to solemnly shake hands on it.  It was a nice idea, but it was also pro forma, because we had to say it before we felt it.  I remember the first time I had to apologize, when I had bitten my sister’s stomach.  She ran toward me in a little summer outfit and a bared midriff and I was two years old and I just spontaneously stepped forward and bit her stomach, which was where I reached her at my diminutive height.  It was soft and satisfying to sink my teeth into it, for that brief and shining moment.

Then of course she screamed and ratted me out to our mother. She had every right to.  One cannot, after all, just go around biting people.  Mom was shocked and disappointed.  She kept trying to get me to justify it, but I didn’t have enough vocabulary to mount a full defense.  I still remember her face coming down to my level as she squatted on her haunches and glared at me wrathfully.  Why?  Why had I done this terrible thing, and let the whole family down?  It wasn’t nice!  In my mind, I was thinking that my sister had run right up to me and her stomach was right there and eminently biteable, from my perspective.  That it might hurt her was not on my radar.

I didn’t plan to bite.  I didn’t even know I wanted to bite.  I simply bit spontaneously with no malice aforethought.  Truth be told, I was not fully repentant when I shook her hand and proffered the family apology.  I was sad to see her teary eyes, and the red mark on her belly, because I loved her.  I was almost able to fathom that I had caused this, but I also knew I hadn’t really meant it, so did I really need to be sorry?  I just didn’t have the brain development to parse that out.  I didn’t have a moral compass to guide me.  And I couldn’t fully sympathize with her feelings, when my own were so strong.

Back to apologies.  In the court system, I see many cases where crime victims hope and pray that the perpetrator will be sorry, and say he is sorry, and maybe read an eloquent apology as part of sentencing.  When it doesn’t happen, it can add pain to what is already so painful.  But when it does happen, there is often a sense of disappointment.  Okay, so you are sorry now.  So what?  Let’s say you truly regret it.  You long, just as much as we do, to go back in time, and change the outcome.    Well, you can’t.  You have to live with the consequences, and we have to live with the consequences.  And no apology, pro forma, forced, suggested by defense counsel, or heartfelt and sincere, will bring the victim back to whole. So what good is it, in the end?  Whatever good it is, it is never good enough.

Why start this post with an oft-repeated childhood story?  Because I do believe than many repeat offenders function at the level I functioned at when I was two.  They often look as bewildered as anyone else in the courtroom when they hear the evidence of their own conduct.  I don’t believe they sit around planning out the violent acts they end up committing.  I think in many cases, circumstances combine when they are at a weak moment, and as they have no impulse control, they just strike out.  If they end up getting caught and convicted, then they pay the legal consequences, and in some cases, have to draft with the help of a lawyer some kind of half-assed gee I’m so sorry letter.  And those letters cannot take away the anger and disappointment and loss that the victims feel about the crime itself.

And yet, the special sadness I see in the victims when no remorse is even pretended, when the perpetrator clearly exhibits that he really doesn’t care about what harm he caused, lets me know that any sort of apology is still better than nothing.  Any bit of comfort, any shred  of remorse, anything to react to or hear, even to dismiss in disdain, is better than nothing.  Even suspecting that the perpetrator is crying crocodile tears and reading a letter their lawyer may have drafted is better than watching him smirk defiantly and show no concern at all. And I am sorry to say I have seen that happen.

Looking back from this perspective, I start to think that maybe our mom was right in making us shake hands, say were were sorry, and make up, even before our hearts were fully in it.

 

 

ROOFBURGLAR WORRIES

There are several kinds of vicarious trauma that legal interpreters face as a regular workplace hazard.  One form of it is akin to when medical students believe they have, or will develop, a certain disease as they learn about it in depth during the course of their studies.  It is very human, but hopefully fallible, to presume that whatever we delve deeply into holds special meaning for us and may be information we need to keep our future selves safe and happy.

We had a residential burglary some years back.  Due to some plumbing problems, we left all our windows open with fans running, even when we left the house.  Not the best idea, but our neighborhood felt safe and it was just for a few days.  Who would be watching, except our loving and kind neighbors and the harmless dog walkers whose worst transgression was leaving behind an unwanted gift from Fido on our lawn?  Who else would watch our house?

I never really answered that question, presuming the break-in was just a random slap of fate, until I happened to interpret for someone who described in detail a group of roofers who scoped out the surrounding houses  from their very convenient rooftop lookout, and then returned to break in during the regularly scheduled absences of the neighbors.  Aha!  I remembered immediately that my neighbor was getting her roof done at the time of our break-in.

For a brief moment, I became obsessed with the coincidence – if it was indeed a coincidence.  Could I investigate the roofing company, demand copies of their worker ID’s, run their criminal records, and maybe even find the silver coffee pot with the acorn lid that my grandmother’s siblings had saved up and bought for her as a keepsake when she emigrated from her homeland?

Damned roofers!  Spying on us and making us unsafe!  All of them must be criminals!  Over time, of course, I faced the fact that correlation does not equal causation.  I faced the fact that there are thousands of roofers in my town, and the handful of them who were doing residential burglaries were caught and jailed.  I faced the fact that I will never know who has my grandmother’s silver coffee pot, and that it doesn’t really matter much at this point.

I accepted that no matter how safe I felt, I was always in danger of having a break-in.  I still am in danger of having a break-in.  And I am not going to prevent it by studying the faces of the people I see in court, or by trying to make sense of the sometimes senseless world around me.  I am not going to be able to prevent anything bad from happening to me by being good, or careful, or wise.   Some things are random and unfixable and some things just happen for no good reason.  Learning to live with that is a lifelong challenge.

SCREAMS AND WHISPERS

There is a wealth of business-model theories on how to be effective, get rich, work well with others, and find success in the most commonly understood, socially sanctioned forms.  Few of them touch me personally, but one simple concept I was just given third-hand is figuring out what is important versus what is urgent.  The urgencies of life scream at us for attention, while what is truly important whispers to us in the softest of voices, like a breeze.  Taking care of urgent matters leads to exhaustion, whereas doing what is important leads to energetic fun.

Urgent matters often come to us in the form of other people’s needs and desires.  Our boss has something that has to be put on his desk by noon.  We have cases in two courtrooms, and the bailiff says both judges are ready for us now.  Someone we love needs us to do something we simply do not have time for, but how can we not?  It is urgent.  It is all so urgent.  These things scream out for our attention and our immediate action.  Sometimes actual people scream actual words at us, to make us run faster, jump higher, produce more.  Other times, it is the voice in our head that is screaming at us to hurry up and be more, do more, have more.

Handling urgent matters all day long leads to one thing: success.  Ha ha!  Just kidding!  Living most of our lives in the “urgent” category actually leads to time wasting.  Strange, isn’t it?  But in fact, if we run around all day putting out fires and responding with bursts of adreline, cortisol, and other stress hormones, we don’t work effectively, and we come home exhausted.  And all we can do when we are exhausted is to turn to our favorite time wasters.  This may be beer and chips in front of the computer, or whatever else seems relaxing, but in the end we find that it is not rejuvenating in any sense of the word.  These time wasters serve the function of numbing us enough that we can go back and do the crazy things we do that seem so urgent to us the next day.  And so time passes on the hamster wheel.

So what is the path that leads us off the hamster wheel and into our own authentic lives?  What are the truly important things that beckon to us, when we create the space for listening into the silence? That is a question for each individual to answer for herself. Perhaps creating the space for contemplation is the portal.  To my way of thinking, what is important is developing our gifts, and sharing them with the world, in a way that makes us deeply and honestly happy.  Our most valuable work is something creative and life-affirming, that leaves us with a deep sense of satisfaction, and joy.  Such activities, even when done for long periods, are energizing and nourishing – the antithesis of exhausting.  That will be our proof that we are on the right path.

If you spend your day doing what is truly important to you, you do not end up exhausted.  You do not have to come home and numb yourself in order to face another day of misery.  So what does carrying out your important work lead to?  Fun.  That’s right.  Fun.  When you come home satisfied, energized, and joyful, you want to play the piano.  You want to walk on the beach.  You want to visit with friends and invite your family for a meal.  You feel like knitting a sweater, or building a desk.  Or doing other important things, like daydreaming and dancing.  This may not be how it was written in a self-help business seminar handout, but doing important work, once you yourself define it, is the single most urgent thing you have to do.

We have worked hard enough, and we have important things to do.   So let’s get to it, and have some serious fun.  And reclaim our lives in the process.  I myself am off to dance with a bunch of weirdos on a Sunday morning, and why not?  It’s fun!

IN THEIR SHOES

One of the benefits of being an interpreter is having a window into so many lives.  It is not always easy, and it can be exhausting.  At the same time, it gives me a deeper sense of gratitude for what I have.  I am not undocumented anywhere I need to live.  I have two passports, and dual citizenship.  I was easily able to obtain permanent residence in two other countries, when I wished to live there for extended periods.  I am trained to work in several fields and have local contacts to help me along professionally.  I have a home.  Most importantly, my own children are a daily presence in my life, and I have extended family nearby.  The list goes on and on.  But it all adds up to a very cushy safety net that few people I work with have.

Each item on my gratitude list has a corresponding lack for the people I serve.  Most of the people I meet are undocumented, or have temporary status.  For the most part, they have children in another country that they have not seen for several years, because they are here to send money home.  Some are supporting older parents or younger siblings.  It is rare that I meet someone who owns a home or even rents a home rather than just a room or a couch.  I also meet quite a few homeless workers.  Their “networking” consists of standing outside a building supply store hoping a vehicle will pull over and pick them up to do some day labor.  Or working a few weeks at a time with a contractor who underpays them.  They are one accident away from not being able to feed themselves, let alone their families.  Working for cash means they have no proof they were injured on the job.  They have no job.  They have no safety net.

And yet here they are, struggling along, flying with their featherless wings, and making the best of things.  I have accompanied them along many parts of their journey.  But I have not walked in their shoes.  And I am convinced that I could not fly in them.  Not in the hopelessly hopeful, fatalistic way that they do.  There is a spark of the divine in their willingness to blindly walk off the edge of the cliff into the void, into the rarely rewarded crazy optimism of that immigration story.

I used to translate handwritten letters from peasants and each letter began with a blessing that I am sure predates writing itself:  “May this missive find you in good health surrounded by your loved ones”.  If I could ask for a Christmas wish on behalf on my language recipients, it would be summed up in that ancient greeting.  I know it cannot be fully realized, because global conditions are bigger than us.  But to the degree that any of the comfort and joy of that wish can be realized, I wish it now.  A trusted friend, a warm meal, a dry sleeping bag.  A respite from care and pain.  The chance to love and work.  And a safety net to fall back upon.  Blessed be.

I SALUTE YOUR LIGHT

I cannot remember which post it was when I mentioned a clerk telling me that in each offender or suspect that she serves, she starts by silently saying to him, “I salute your light”.  Her words have stayed with me.  I try to employ them each time I find myself getting hooked into judging the person in front of me, whose full life experience I can never know.  It is a reminder to myself to stay neutral.

“I salute your light” is a silent recognition of the other person’s humanity.  A reminder to oneself that we are each more than the sum total of our mistaken actions.  We are more than our addictions.  We are more than our limitations.  We live the consequences of our mistakes, addictions and limitations – this is demonstrated on a daily basis in the criminal justice system.  But that is still not all we are.

I like the idea of a quiet and gentle court clerk, about to hand a prisoner paperwork (your bail was set at 5000, you must surrender any weapons) looking at him through the bulletproof window with a little pass-through for paperwork in it, with a wordless look of recognition emanating from her eyes.  Not to approve of his actions or be dismissive of the pain he may have caused.  But merely to say, I see you.  I recognize the fellow human in you.  I salute your light.

We do not know about other people’s futures.  We do not know how much their past will be a predictor of their future.  Life has surely surprised each and every one of us, in our own near misses, our lucky breaks and close escapes.  We have surprised ourselves after painful situations with our own resiliency and ability to learn and change.  And licked the wounds of our vanity, in those situations where were were rightfully regretful of our own behaviors.  We mustn’t forget this in our rush to judge others as wrong, so that we can continue to feel right and good and safe.

For some, their inner light may be a dim spark, or covered deep in the ashes of a decades-long trail of self-destruction.  For others, it may be the roaring blaze of a drug-induced candle that is burning at both ends and seems destined for early burnout.  Yet for a few of our prisoners, theirs may be burning into a purer flame.  They may be destined to learn from their mistakes and to become in their turn a bearer of hope to others, lighting their way out of the darkness.  We cannot know who will become a source of hope for others.  But we can surely be that source of hope where we are able.

There is a card in the the tarot deck with a wizened old person holding a lantern in the darkness.  He seems to be be saying, where you are, I once was.  Where I am, you may be some day.  It is called the hermit card.  To me, it represents the need to be introspective in our search for wisdom.  The need to search our own souls and our own dark places instead of shining the light on the mistakes of others and pointing the finger, while not seeing ourselves clearly enough to create meaningful change within.  The hermit goes off, not to judge or blame others, but to take a good look at himself.  It is in the quiet of that space, that solitude,  that wisdom is found.

If we cannot rise to the occasion of saluting the feeble light of those who seem to be in darkness, perhaps we can at least reach neutrality.  Without predicting, judging or guessing how someone will turn out, or where their life will take them after their jail time, we can at least acknowledge that we can never know everything about another person.  We can at least take one step back from judgment.

We cannot know all the factors that led a person to stand before us in prison clothes and handcuffs.  We cannot know what tools and skills they were given to deal with their lives.  We cannot know where they are going or what future good they may embrace.  So we really do not have all the information we would need in order to judge a fellow human and make a final decision on their sum total worth or value.

Instead, without a word spoken, without approving of any base or violent action, we can do what the gentlest of court clerks does, and offer an inward greeting: I salute your light.

FORGIVENESS

I only saw snippets of the landmark trial of our local mass murderer who got away with years of killing young women specifically because they were underprivileged workers and runaways.  The victims were not considered high priority.  Years went by before their killer was found and convicted.  A caring detective kept on the trail, and healed many hearts in the process, although he could not, of course, bring back the dead.  Which is why forgiveness is so hard – you can never get back what you lost, so how can you forgive? And why would you even want to?

I used to wait for a bus to community college right along the strip where we later found out that this killer would pick up women.  Several men did stop at my bus stop and ask me if I wanted a ride.  Some would just stop and open the passenger door with the expectation that I would wordlessly get in their car, which perplexed me.  They looked sheepish and drove off when I just stood and stared at them in my turn.  I just didn’t realize until years later that merely being a working class girl standing alongside a highway made me look like I would be available to sexually service any man with a few bills in his wallet.  It really astounded me when I figured this out.

I avoided most of the trial and media about this killer, as it was too close to home.  He had attended our high school at the same time as my oldest sister. To my many middle class acquaintances, I try to explain some of my childhood by pointing out that this mass murderer didn’t stand out.  He was one angry, predatory male among many.  I know many boys who ended up dead, on drugs, in jail, in the military, or the few lucky ones working for the military industrial complex in a union job.  Not all the boys at my school turned out poorly, of course, yet I find that those who turned out well seem to have incredible strength of character.

What I remember most of the mass murder media coverage was when some of the family members of the dead were able to testify directly to the killer as part of his sentencing hearing.  I was interpreting at a birth and the family had this on the television, which was so bizarre to me.  But I am glad I saw it, because I remember it to this day.  One after another, they told the killer how much they hated him.  How they were so happy he was in jail where he would get his own back.  How they looked forward to his rotting in hell.  How nothing terrible that ever happened to him would be bad enough.  That they were glad in his suffering.  The cameras swung from his face to the victims’ families and back.  He did not react visibly to any of this directed hatred.  Not a tear, not a grimace, not any change of countenance.  Nothing seemed to touch him.

Near the end, a dead girl’s father stood up and said he took responsibility for not being a better father.  That he had left his young daughter to be raised in poverty by her young mother.  That he had not been there to guide and support her.  That when he had found out his daughter was getting into trouble and even running away, he didn’t act to try and help her, as a good father would have done.  He had not been there for his daughter, and now he would never have the chance.

“I cannot forgive you for what you did to her,” he said to the killer.  “Only she could do that, and she is not here.  If there was something you could do to bring my daughter back, I would ask you to, I would do anything – but I know you can’t.  Nobody can.  I only wanted to testify so I could tell you that I do forgive you for the suffering you have caused me as a father.  I don’t hate you.  I don’t wish you ill.  That is too much for me to carry.  So I forgive you.”

The killer first blinked, then tears poured down his face, then he started sobbing and choking.  Hatred, rage, anger, judgment, disdain, disparagement, revenge – none of these feelings could touch him.  He was all too familiar with them, and he had hardened his heart to all of them.  It was compassion alone that could touch him.

I have no illusions that he was crying in remorse for having killed that man’s daughter.  But the fact that he could cry at all did touch me.  And I like to think it may have added a tiny measure of comfort to those who were grieving, to see him showing some feeling.  But I don’t have the authority to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t presume to.  I only know it comforted me in that moment.

What about forgiveness?  I once heard an old story repeated as it surely has been in various guises.  A group of young monks who had made pledges both of silence and to never touch a woman were at the crossing of a river, where it was just deep and fast enough to make crossing on foot a danger.  But the five monks were able to hold hands and keep each other afloat.  In the middle of the river, one of the monks broke away.  The others watched in shock as he swam downriver to help a young woman carrying a baby.  He actually lifted her up into his arms with her baby and carried her the rest of the way across and then set her down on the shore.  When she thanked him, he simply nodded without speaking and moved back to his group.

The monks had to walk for several days to reach the next monastery.  During that time, they were wordlessly resentful.  The monk should not have picked up that woman!  He shouldn’t have touched her at all!  What he did went against their holy vows, and he was wrong!  Really wrong.  He considered himself holy, but he was not.   They knew each other so well that all this was communicated wordlessly.  Once they reached the next monastery, one of them felt he spoke for all when he approached the head monk and told of this incident.  A small trial was held and the accusation was made.  When asked for his defense, the offending monk made two points.  One, the woman was in distress and she and her baby could have drowned.  “Secondly, I only carried her for five minutes.  I put her down at the edge of the river four days ago.  It is the other monks, my brothers, who have been carrying her ever since.”  And so he was forgiven.

I consider forgiveness the most difficult of all the gifts we can give ourselves.  Because in forgiving it seems like we are somehow condoning bad behavior or harm.  Perpetrators and sinners do not deserve to be forgiven.  If you do something terrible you should not do it with the expectation of being forgiven.  And neither should I.   It would only raise the temptation for me to know ahead of time that I will be forgiven.  On the other hand, the victims of crimes and their loved ones do not deserve to be burdened by carrying around the hatred, the rage, and the intrusive memories of the injury done.  So what can we do?

Perhaps we can start by realizing that failing to forgive is more an injury to ourselves than to anyone else, especially someone we are not even in contact with.  Someone would have to care deeply about us indeed before our internal sufferings would cause them a moment’s remorse.  How often is that the case, especially for a crime victim?  One of the many great quotes falsely attributed to Buddha is the one about how not forgiving someone is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. This is especially true if you are not eating your meals together with the perpetrator.  Why poison ourselves?

One answer is that there is a fundamental unfairness inherent in the very concept of forgiveness.  In crimes and other transgressions, one person gets to be the perpetrator.  They choose to act, and they do something they want to do.  The other has to be the victim.  They don’t get to choose what is done to them or against them.  The action is done, and cannot be undone.   Both parties may be changed forever by this action.  And yet it is the injured party alone who has the additional task and burden of figuring out how to forgive.  Or carrying that pain and hatred around with them for the rest of their lives.  As necessary as it is, as healing as it can be, it is still a bitter cure to swallow.

SOCIAL CAPITAL

In sentencing hearings, defense attorneys often speak to the judge about the circumstances of the defendant’s childhood, neighborhood, and social background, using the term “social capital” as in the defendant didn’t have much of it, so his possibilities were circumscribed.  Almost as if he were condemned by fate to end up in the criminal justice system and therefore should not be judged harshly.  I don’t like to think of our upbringing as a life sentence, but I also know that we cannot escape it entirely by pure force of will.  Moral fortitude alone is not sufficient.  It truly takes the social capital of a village to raise a child.

What is social capital?  To me, it is defined by what you have and know, and who you know.  Followed by what they have and know, and who they in turn know.  And how willing they all are to help you, in an ever-widening social circle.  If you have people in your life who know how to help you but simply refuse to, or who want to help but don’t know how, you are not going to get very far. It is like going to a dear friend for loan, when she is as broke as you are, then approaching a wealthy bank, which turns you down.  You still end up with nothing.  You need people who are able and willing to share their knowledge and resources with you.

A more thorough and elegant definition than mine was written a century ago in 1916 in an article by Hanifan: “Goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit …  and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.”

I like this concept that helping each other helps the whole community.  This is all cheerful great stuff, but for those who were not born into this kind of a social safety net and ladder, the required sympathy and fellowship are hard to come by. And we as a society pay the consequences, but not in equal measure.  Not by a long shot.

I remember one of our young friends expressing that he could afford to donate a substantial amount of his income because he doesn’t ever expect to be homeless or hungry.  So there was little risk and great benefit to his donating.  I shared that with one of my friends, who was silent for a moment and then asked if I felt the same.  I do.  I can think of many people who would take me in for months or even years at a time, as I would for them.  And have, on several occasions.  There are a great many beds and sofas between me and sleeping outside.  And a great many more kitchens between me and actual hunger.  The resulting feeling of security alone is one of the most priceless gifts of my social capital.

In court, I encounter many people and observe many cases where people literally have nowhere to go – no functioning friend or relative who has stable housing where they can stay.  I cannot truly imagine what that would feel like.  I cannot stretch my mind beyond sympathy for their situation, and an ongoing reminder to myself that I cannot know the sufferings of a person so differently placed.  What a wealth of friends and family I was born into.  A true blessing of fate.

Think about people we judge so harshly because they parent terribly or engage in domestic violence.  Did they have wonderful stable parents who demonstrated how to go about this mysterious business of being married and raising a family?  What kind of examples, what kind of support did they have to learn from?  Beyond emotional stability, what about the economics of a stable life?  How many kids decide to go to college and actually graduate, if they don’t have any family members or friends who are educated?  It is a leap in the dark.  How do we suppose people are to get healthy relationships and good jobs if they have never seen it done?  There is an almost infinite number of simple steps to get a good job, or to build a lasting and healthy relationship.

Someone has to guide each one of us, one way or another, through each of these steps before we can walk that path.  It takes countless mentors, supporters and teachers.  And even with all of that, we are quite capable of failing miserably at it.  It seems incredible that anyone at all is functional.  It reminds me of a lovely cartoon by the late Callahan – a huge stadium filled with banners welcoming members if I remember correctly to the “National Convention for Children of Functional Families” and there were just two or three people in the whole huge stadium.  We all of have our shortcomings, and so much of our successes come from a whole series of helping hands.  I try to keep that in mind when I find myself judging someone for falling short of my expectations.