Law in Contemporary Society

Abandoning the Ultimate Goal

This essay is a revision of JasonLissyFirstPaper.

Narratives as Stimulants

For some students, an intricate personal narrative is crucial to mollifying the pains that accompany three years of law school. The cornerstone of such a narrative is the Ultimate Goal: a precisely defined career objective with all its accompanying benefits. In other words, the thought of making partner at a big law firm can provide the energy necessary to propel a law student through boring tort cases and painful nights at the library. By providing a fixed time limit on pain and suffering – or at least giving such an impression – the narrative and its Ultimate Goal serve as a stimulant to action. Focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, convinced that it will all be worth it once he gets there, the student manages to muster the strength to move forward. One step after another.

Seen through the lens of the personal narrative, actions derive their value from the degree to which they bring the student closer to realization of the Ultimate Goal. A step forward has no meaning in itself; its only value lies in its ability to lessen the distance between the student and the light. Evidence that conflicts with the narrative is dismissed, and arguments that portray the Ultimate Goal from an unfavorable angle are automatically deflected. When told that the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact a flashlight in the mouth of a man-eating monster, our student scoffs. He refuses to deviate from his narrative.

The Fear of Retrospective Worthlessness

Sooner or later, however, the narrative begins to fail as an organizing principle. When challenged, its dismissal reflex malfunctions and it begins to disintegrate. The Ultimate Goal begins to look more and more like a flashlight in the mouth of a man-eating monster. As a result, the student finds himself thoroughly disoriented: If the value of all his actions to date has been a function of their relation to the Ultimate Goal, what would happen to his past if he rewrote the narrative? Having toiled in the service of the Ultimate Goal for so long, he fears that making a ninety-degree turn at this point will entail an unacceptable loss of meaning – that years spent in pursuance of the abandoned goal will turn into an unbroken chain of wasted efforts.

The fear of retrospective worthlessness overshadows the fear of an unfulfilling future, and the student treads onward toward the light. But he lies awake at night, tormented by the blatant undesirability of the Ultimate Goal. Lost and frustrated, he tries a new approach: Perhaps imbuing the old Ultimate Goal with new significance will, at least superficially, circumvent the problem of retrospective worthlessness? So the student tries to recast big-firm partnership – which now appears largely undesirable on its face – as a symbol of continuity, dedication and perseverance. Unfortunately, the Band-Aid does not stick. Eventually, the fear of retroactive worthlessness is the Ultimate Goal’s last cheerleader. Still lost and frustrated, our law student is unsure how to proceed.

A Better Solution?

Fortunately, there is a solution:

Rather than trying to avoid retrospective worthlessness by imbuing the Ultimate Goal with new value, why not imbue the past with meaning separate from the Ultimate Goal?

Upon consideration, perhaps the student will realize that the chapters of his narrative that he has already written read quite well on their own, and that the story line actually begs for an unexpected turn. Eventually, he may even realize that he Ultimate Goal was an illusion – a figment of his imagination with the sole purpose of bringing him to this particular fork in the road. It has propelled him forward for years, but now he can run on his own.

So what will he do? Stay the course and become enslaved by the monster he himself created, or take the next turn and embark on an exhilarating journey?

-- AnjaHavedal - 10 Apr 2009

  • This was a difficult exercise in editing. The editor's usual task is to strengthen the strong places and cope with the weaknesses while improving the writing and remaining faithful to the goal of communicating optimally the author's central ideas. Here, however, your assessment of the weak places led to the conclusion that the author's central idea needed to be modified, and you rewrote around that conviction. This, as I say, is difficult editing. Sometimes it is feasible in context, sometimes not. It's always technically difficult, because you struggle with the text you want to change.

  • Of course, you tried to maintain integrity of relation to the draft you started from, and that introduced more problems. The acceptance of the idea of life narrative was the problematic structure of the first paper: the idea of retrospective dishonor to previous experience needed to be related to, but to disagree with it without explaining the psychic structure that creates it—and the problems that structure poses to the human being living within it—reproduces the problem rather than solving it. So your draft suggests that internal narrative logic is what justifies change of life objective (you will see on reflection that you were "supposed" to make a change here). This doesn't deal with the underlying problem, which is an anxiety that may be quieted but won't be eased by this form of appeasement.

  • The way you dealt with the false universality, the aspiration to a general theory of risk-aversion, was similarly to leave the underlying fear unspoken, and to pick merely another form of false universalization. Editorially, the real task was to get under the skin of the idea and to ask the questions that would elicit the anxieties of which it is a symptom. But that would be even harder than what you undertook. The problem is that without doing that hard work, the edit falls between two stools: it neither reflects better what the author of the original draft meant, nor prepares him to write something that means more deeply and authentically something new.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:31:33 - IanSullivan
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