Is There Any Room For Kindness in the Law?

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.”  Kindness is an element that’s often missing in the practice of law.  Perhaps the absence of this most human of qualities is why lawyers are so unhappy and unfulfilled.  Likewise, kindness is often lacking during a depression.  During such times, others may not be kind to us.  Whether it’s out of ignorance or simply not caring, it hurts.  Moreover, there’s the lack of kindness towards our selves during a depression. During such times, we use most of our energy grappling with the darkness just trying to find our way home.  Kindness towards our selves seems unobtainable if not inconceivable.

When we get our bearings and depression lifts, it might be helpful to turn our ship towards kindness as an important quality to nurture in our work lives.  Some of my more cynical brethren think I’m smoking weed when I talk like this.  They opine:  “You’d get crushed if you acted kindly.  Don’t be a fool.”  But, I’m not some idealistic dreamer, I’m actually a realist.  Having been in the litigation trenches for over 20 years, I know all too well the brutality, hand-to-hand combat, scheming and grenades that are lobbed back and forth into our bunkers.  I think I’m a realist because I’m well acquainted with and see the tremendous cost of it all.  These experiences were, most certainly, a cause of my depression as it is for many lawyers.

Since I don’t want to return to my former melancholic state, I have thought about the cost of not incorporating kindness into my day – yes, even during my workday.  It can be done in small ways, such as becoming aware of our tone of voice when we speak to our secretary, seeing our client’s phone inquires not as annoyances to endure but as opportunities to be of service or bringing a cup of coffee to the receptionist.

Kindness is intricately connected to the heart, more than the mind.  We can’t crunch the numbers or do a cost-benefit analysis about this sort of thing.  We have to simply take chances.  In my own experience, the following Zen adage holds true:  “Just leap and the net will suddenly appear.” 

I believe that the fatigue most lawyers complain of is often connected to the lack of kindness.  Kindness has an enlivening and authentic dimension to it.  Harold Whitman once wrote, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that.  Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

Poet, David Whyte, who I’ve written about before, speaks to such corporate titans as IBM, Mobil Oil and Citibank about meaning and beauty.  In one moving passage of his book, “Crossing the Unknown Sea, he talks about his friendship with a pretty hip monk named Brother David Steindl Rast who happens to be a psychiatrist.  Here is an excerpt of their dialogue:

“’Brother David?’”  I uttered it in such an old, petitionary, Catholic way that I almost thought he was going to say, “Yes, my son?”  But, he did not; he turned his face toward me, following the spontaneous note of desperate sincerity, and simply waited.

‘Tell me about exhaustion,’ I said.  He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me.  He said, in the form both of a question and an assertion:

‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’  ‘The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,’ I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence.  ‘What is it, then?’

‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’  He looked at me for a wholehearted moment, as if I should fill in the blanks.  But I was blank to be filled at the moment, and though I knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the wherewithal to say anything in reply.  So he carried on:

‘You are tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers’.”

Perhaps it’s tough to bring kindness, or wholeheartedness if you will, into our lives until we listen to our deeper human needs, both our own and others.  That deep need which tells us that we are more than our jobs that we convinced ourselves we can’t change or leave.  We must discover our “true powers” and part of that journey is reconnecting with this most fundamental of human yearnings – the desire for simple kindness.

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1 thought on “Is There Any Room For Kindness in the Law?

  1. St. Francis de Sales states that a lawyer (he was pretty familiar with lawyers, as is family had wanted him to be one) should be able to go from his prayers to his petitions. I’ve found that very tough to do, but your post here reminds me of that.

    Incorporating kindness into the law is very tough. I’ve had a hard time doing it, although I don’t regard myself as particularly “mean”. One thing I’ve tried to do is to avoid the particularly nasty, again trying to follow St. Francis’ advice.

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