Thursday, November 19, 2009

Winding Down the Fifth Semester

Traveling has dominated the first semester of my third year, and I've enjoyed every bit of it. Early on I had an election law class in D.C. on two different weekends, and a job fair there another weekend. I stuck around to attend an oral argument at the Supreme Court with a good friend, one of the best experiences of my three years here.

Because it was only the second day of the term, we got in line around 5:30 a.m. We were numbers 53 and 54. At 9:30 the guards let in the first 50 people, but we stood there waiting nervously. Twenty minutes later, ten minutes before the start of the argument, the guards let us in. We sat in the back row and watched the nine Supreme Court justices take their seats in United States v. Stevens, a First Amendment case involving a man who'd been sentenced to three years for showing videos of dogfighting. My friend and I enjoyed every minute of it, and afterwards we spent an hour and a half discussing the case and all its implications. An awesome day.

More recently I've made weekend trips to New Hampshire to visit friends, Iowa to visit family, and New Haven, Connecticut for a conference at Yale Law School (pictured) on the "New Media Ecology." I drove with two friends from W&M. We learned a lot about the future of media in the digital age, sustainable business models for newspapers, the unbundling of news, and the increased reliance on Wikipedia, among other things. Mostly we gleaned that we have little to fear from the future — the delivery of news will undoubtedly continue to change, but this creates as many opportunities for engagement as it does crises. Though some academics worry that society is becoming more polarized and seeking out news outlets that confirm their opinions, it's also true that more people are paying attention to news and participating in it to some degree. Many more of us see opportunities to add content to online sites or at least send articles to our family and friends, stimulating conversation and creating debate. Some argued that these developments do not bode well for society but others, including me, believe that these changes will make us a better, more engaged democracy.

For several hours the last two nights I have made phone calls on behalf of the law school admissions office, contacting admitted students and answering their questions about the law school experience. It's a strange thing to feel like, at least for these future law students, I'm a bit of an expert on all this — being at William & Mary, living in Williamsburg, knowing the people here. It doesn't seem that long ago at all that I was in their shoes, excited to get to law school but with no idea what I was in for. I'm looking back at it all rather fondly now, though of course it's not over yet. I have chosen my classes for the final semester. The job search continues.

In the last week or so I've spent some time reflecting on how my worldview has changed over the last two-plus years. I have come to this conclusion, and sorry if it seems rather obvious, but I think it's worth stating:

We human beings are all deeply flawed creatures. Each of us has countless faults, some glaring, some visible to others but not to ourselves, some obscured to most people but painfully known to those closest to us. We tread always on dangerous ground when we begin to judge others for their faults, though judging others is impossible to avoid. It's part of our human condition, making value decisions about the people around us, the people we hear about on the news, the people we see at work and at school. Still, we so rarely know the full story. Indeed, we almost never know the whole story, what makes others tick, the pressures that bear down on them, the difficulties they endure and likewise the privileges they have known.

I'm learning to keep this in mind, in no small part because it will be necessary when I become a public defender. To represent clients with rough histories, one must learn to love them, and loving them means appreciating all the hardships they've endured, all the choices they've made under difficult circumstances. I have led a relatively privileged life, with the love and support of family and friends and communities, so much of this is new to me. But over the past two-plus years, I have only had to open my eyes and walk into one incredible new experience after another, meeting so many inspiring attorneys, investigators, and clients along the way.

We are all deeply flawed creatures. But we all have so much potential for goodness. Ayn Rand once wrote, "Judge, and prepare to be judged." I once agreed with this, but now I would advocate a different approach. (I've been listening to Stoic podcasts lately.) Be slow to judge. In the words of Epictetus, "When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger." Ah, philosophy, how I've missed you.