Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

Exercise 2-3 | Working With Stories

Getting Started: In the endless chatter of about daily life and the vexing world around us, we tend to forget that we are telling and making stories, accepting and rejecting stories, praising and rebelling against stories. Ernest Becker observed that no life "can be straightforwardly self-expansive in all directions; each one must draw back into himself in some areas, pay some penalty of a severe kind of his natural fears and limitations." [Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death 270 (New York: Free Press, 1973)]. And so it is with the stories we are drawn to, the stories that throw a cloak of meaning around what we know, stories that feed the illusion that we are the person we know ourselves to be.

Lawyers and Literature is an invitation to become story conscious and to become more aware of the stories you are asked to live as a lawyer, the stories you have inherited (or composed) that you bring with you to law school. What we seek is to better understand the storied ways of the world(s) we inhabit.

Stories Call Us Up Short: We learn, reading stories, that we know less than we might assume we know. We learn that we must struggle to find a language adequate to articulate what we find in a particular story and how we have given a particular meaning to the story.

Paying the rent, making good grades on an examination, or finding a place in a law firm demand attention. Surrounded by matters that demand immediate attention, we tend to overlook the stories we tell and the stories we enact. Indeed, we may be so busy that we simply fail to think of our ourselves as having a story at all.

Everyday affairs and mundane matters are more than sufficient to keep us fully occupied, so caught up in the busy-ness of daily life that we don't engage in the reflective, introspective work that keeps us grounded. To read and reflect, read and puzzle over stories can be seen as an irritating nuisance. We find it convenient to avoid the reflection and studied response that literature demands. Indeed, a good many law school teachers would have you believe that fiction has no place in your education as a lawyer.

In legal education, we pay little attention to the stories that particularize the limits and problematic nature of legal practice, the stories that show how being a lawyer can implicate us in lives we would choose NOT to live. For some, the success story seems the only story worth telling or thinking about.

If we assume that beneath the affairs and immediacy of everyday life and conventional professional roles there lies a part of the self, forgotten, repressed, unimagined as it might be, then literature might be read as a diagnostic of this condition. The literature of lawyer stories allows us to explore these split-off parts of the self.

Exploring these unimagined parts of the self is not at all simple or straightforward. "The knowing self is full of darkness, distortion, and error; it does not want to be exposed and challenged to change. It seeks objectified knowledge in order to know without being known." [Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known 121 (New York: Harper & Row, 1983)]. We sometimes venture into the great darkness of our lives by accident, by having delivered at our doorsteps a fate we did not choose. And so it is in this course of reading: You did not choose what you are being asked to read.

Law students are sometimes resistant to the simple notion that learning how to be a lawyer is, in reality, a way of learning to be a person. Some students, but by no means all, are convinced that being a lawyer and being a person are different enterprises and that one may engage in the one without undue concern for the other. In this "two worlds" approach to law and life, the idea that being a lawyer depends on being a person carries baggage with serious questions for our professional lives.

Mindfulness: Lawyering is a purposeful activity and we give high honor to those among us most intent on getting somewhere, doing something, being something, having a career, gaining recognition, realizing the success that law makes possible. But we need to contrast purpose and mindfulness as they entail different values. Purpose, unmoderated, can push us toward mindlessness. Mindful work is characterized by care, concern, attention, awareness, thoughtfulness. Those overly committed to narrow purposes often become mindless as they fail to attend to the questions that surround their pursuits.

Crossing Over: One might see the profession of law as work in a "fallen" world. Lawyers witness, by the work they do for clients, every manner of human deprivation and failing, bar none. Lawyers traffic in and profit from and come close to all that is vile and reprehensible in human behavior, all the while proclaiming, to themselves and to the world, that they are justified by their profession and their work in trudging the paths they follow. But lawyers are, one suspects, always in danger of crossing the line, becoming tainted, eating forbidden fruit of the tree that sustains their livelihood.

Learning to Avoid Mystery: Parker J. Palmer notes that "We want a kind of knowledge that eliminates mystery and puts us in charge of an object-world. Above all, we want to avoid a knowledge that calls for our own conversion. We want to know in ways that allow us to convert the world--but we do not want to be known in ways that require us to change as well." [Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education 39-40 (New York: Harper & Row, 1983)]

An Exercise in Reading: A man named Charlie lived a few miles down the road from the Kentucky farm where I grew up. We would see Charlie from time to time during the summer, walking along the road in his tattered clothes. We found it odd how he would stop from along the way to pick up pieces of wood, or an old hubcap that had liberated itself from a passing car. I never talked to Charlie, not once. I was never afraid of Charlie and he was known by our neighbors up and down the road. This was a time when we were told as children to get in the house and lock the doors when we saw tramps walking the road. Charlie, we knew, was not a tramp.

Charlie, in his infrequent passage by our place, seemed thoroughly preoccupied; he payed absolutely no attention to us, more intent it seemed on monitoring the roadside for desirable objects. When Charlie passed our house on his way home, he still had several miles of walking ahead of him. I don't recall that he even looked toward the house; he never acknowledged our presence and gave us no reason to fear him.

In my curiosity about Charlie, about a man who walked when everyone else had a car, I asked my mother about Charlie and was told he was a hermit, not a real tramp.

"What's a hermit?" I asked and was told that a hermit was a man--we knew no women hermits in those days--who lived by himself and tried to stay away from people as much as possible. I didn't know anyone who lived alone, and couldn't imagine anyone choosing to do so.

"Why would he live alone? Doesn't he have a family?"

"Oh yes," I was told, "he has a family. Some of them live another mile or so down the gravel road that begins not far from his own house."

"Well, why doesn't he live with his family?"

"A hermit may have a family, but he doesn't want to live with them. There are rumors and wild speculations about Charlie and his family, but we don't know what, if any, of these rumors are true. All we know is that, for whatever reason, Charlie chooses to live by himself. Maybe there were hard feelings in the family at some time. Maybe it was something that happened when he was growing up. Maybe Charlie is a little crazy and finds it easier to live by himself than to be with others. We all have days when we would rather live alone, just as Charlie does. Or just maybe there is nothing wrong at all wrong with Charlie, and he just plain and simple wants to be a hermit."

"Do you mean that he might actually want to live by himself?"

"Yes, that's possible."

"Well, who does he talk to?"

"For all we know, he doesn't talk to anyone. The whole idea of being a hermit is that you don't have to talk to anyone."

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This brief story about Charlie says something about how we live with others and the joy and difficulties that entails. Stories often show how we find a place in the world of others, or how we live a life trying to escape from others. Our stories always speak of inclusion and exclusion, of leaving home and returning home. They are tales of acceptance and rejection. Whatever place I find, whatever role I accept or reject, whatever stance I take, it is ultimately in relation to the culture in which I find myself and the communities that I try to create and those from which I wish to escape.


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