How not to be jaded when the world is going to the bad place in a hand basket

My law students are going to be lawyers -- a double-edged sword for them. On the one hand, lawyers serve in the world; we serve neighbors, communities, governments, institutions. And service may be the most honorable purpose we humans can aspire to.

On the other hand, practitioners see daily the ugliest and most difficult sides of human behavior and events.

Our students were thinking about dealing with neighbors on the verge of losing everything: businesses that took lifetimes to build, families, children, fortunes, futures, lives hanging in the balance. They were thinking of peering through the dark at the soft underbelly of society hidden from most. They were thinking of conversation after conversation with people embroiled in the fights of their lifetimes, or people facing challenges they simply cannot rise to.

So when my students asked, “How can we be in this profession and not become jaded and calloused,” I recognized that they sought a long view that would serve their existence. I wanted to give them a real answer. It’s not easy.

So I hunkered down and came up with a Five-Step Plan. If it can help lawyers, it can probably help pretty much anybody. So here it is.

Lawyers, of course, need to start with definitions. “Jaded” isn’t green, although linguistically much has happened since the word first appeared in our language. But that’s another article. “Jaded” comes from the Old Norse word, “jalda,” meaning “exhausted, tired old horse.” And callous is what you think: hardened and protected from further sensitivity because of being rubbed the wrong way.

Here are the five steps I gave them:

(1) “To thine own self be true.” Being true to yourself means a few things. First, it means that if you want to be a cynical peevish tired old horse, then be that way. This article isn’t for you. Being true to yourself also means you need to know your own personal values, so that when you make the everyday decisions which each moment presents, you have a measuring tool. “Re-examine all you have been told. … Dismiss what insults your Soul.” Walt Whitman.

Do what’s right by your own personal compass in each moment. Listen to Jiminy Cricket chirping in your ear, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Do that, and the ripples you set up with each small decision will be the ripples you intend.

(2) Put in the work. As my colleagues often remind our students, “There is no substitute for excellent preparation.” If we prepare to do the work we need to accomplish, we do a job we can be proud of.

There is no better way to limit the remorse in our lives, and that in turn lightens our loads so we don’t become tired old horses. Preparing for life is part of our work. Every day we have the opportunity to begin again and prepare ourselves to be the best we can be. Forgive yourself and do the work.

(3) Just say yes. Don’t expect anything other than what the world offers. Accept what is, and unless you’ve wisely chosen an important battle, don’t create your own grain for the world to go against.

The surest way to tire yourself out is to create the opportunity for that kind of friction.

(4) Be grateful for everything you receive; you are not entitled to -- nor can you expect -- the next moment. It’s all a gift. Things like Newtown in 2012 reminded us (more often than we’d like) that we are mortal, our children are mortal, the end of the world is around every corner. These reminders all brought us closer to Now, which -- you might already know -- is all we actually have. When we remember that life could end this very moment, we become more grateful for the moment we are experiencing now. And there is much to be grateful for. Once you’re there, see (1) Jiminy Cricket and ripples.

(5) Smell the roses. And you are the rose. A story: Hari was 15 years old when he had a seizure and died on an airplane just as he was exclaiming how beautiful the lights of London looked during landing. His father, a physician, couldn’t revive him.

When Hari’s guru came to speak at Hari’s memorial service at Heritage High School in Saginaw, Mich., she said something like this: “I don’t know why God would take from us the boy with the big white smile that made us all smile back so happy. I thought and thought about this. Why? And this is all I can think: It’s like the rosebush. You take this small bush, roots balled up and cold, and you place it in this dark, dank, cold pit – the earth. And you cover the roots with dirt and with foul smelling decaying shit – the fertilizer. And the roots reach out in the dark, and they suck in this wet decay, the cold dank filth, and the rosebush pulls this all in and processes it, and presses it through its stems and into unfolding blossoms, until it becomes something that is universally accepted as the fragrance of Love. That is all I can tell you. That is all I know.”

And that is how not to become jaded and calloused when the world is going to the bad place in a hand basket.

Fehrman is a professor of legal skills at California Western School of Law.

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