Law in Contemporary Society
It is strongly recommended that you include your outline in the body of your essay by using the outline as section titles. The headings below are there to remind you how section and subsection titles are formatted.

The Purpose of a Life

-- By GraceChan - 16 Apr 2010

Introduction: “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”

When I read this piece for the first time for Civil Procedure last fall, I was particularly struck by one line: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill-will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” King, addressing a group of clergymen critical of his tactics, was referring to those white moderates who claimed to sympathize with his cause but opposed his actions, instead urging him to go through the proper channels and wait for the right time. It was all the more troubling, then, that I felt he very well could have been addressing me.

I am among the population of students who entered Columbia Law School with the vague goal of doing justice and with the vague notion that law would help us achieve those ends. My greatest fear (shared by others) is that my unformed but sincere intentions to do good will never take shape, and that I will stall at the stage of a good intentioned person who professes sympathy and support for causes while standing by and failing to act myself. Particularly because this class has done so much to identify where the trap lies and how to avoid it, it would be a shame if I stumbled into it anyway.

I agree that this class has opened my eyes and become less zombie-like, but I do not think there is a particular trap that we can avoid. I believe it is more of a lifelong strive to understand that we should take control of our own lives, instead of selling out.

Following an established track that many before have walked is like walking down a slope; it takes less effort to go in that direction. To walk uphill will take greater effort and greater resolve.

From Shallow Understanding to Real Understanding

The problem: I am scared of taking a strong stance because I am scared that, having by not thought thinking out the full implications of an issue, I will pick the wrong side and do more harm than good.

This is a fear many people have, but I think it is impossible to think out everything in an issue. Sometimes we just have to act on an impulse or a feeling of whatever it is being right to us. Yet, I have been in your position many times and understand this fear all to well.

I tend to play it safe, and one of Eben’s comments on my previous essay was quite telling of this facet of my personality: “Your analysis is accurate, but accuracy does not necessarily produce insight.” It is quite true that I tend to stick with what I know, and too often, I feel that I don’t know enough to make a personal judgment. But this is a cop-out. As a result, I am often stuck at the stage of being able to recite facts and standard arguments of both sides without having drawn my own conclusion. Likewise, I trap myself at the stage of offering my sympathies to causes that sound good—at the stage of lukewarm acceptance—but where I am just unsure enough to jump into the fight myself. With the War in Iraq, for example, it was all too easy to rationalize, “Oh, but the country would degenerate into sectarian violence if the U.S. pulls out, and so withdrawal would be irresponsible.” But I tell myself that once I find the right cause, something that I can really get behind, I will be inspired to action. That when I do recognize a true wrong, I will act to right it. But that hasn’t happened yet, and unless I’m more proactive about it—unless I force myself to get past mere shallow understanding—it won’t.

I think this is key. Consciously being aware of our decisions, feelings, and thoughts will help us get past our complacency.

This is where this class has come in. Above all, it has impressed upon me a greater sense of urgency to shake myself out of passivity and it has reminded me of the power of a license. I’ve come to recognize where my internal stop signs are located, and I know I need to push through them by challenging myself to think deeper—instead of halting my analysis early in an issue, going one cycle further in policy analysis; instead of approaching an issue from one angle or discipline, drawing from many. Real understanding has another component: knowing the people and the stakes that are involved. I left our April 15 class discussion on labor unions acutely aware of my relatively young age and inexperience; I have, after all, spent the past two decades of my life in the classroom.

From Lukewarm Acceptance to Conviction: Carrying out the Purpose of a Life

I recently stumbled upon a blog post discussing the possibility of Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court that stuck with me. After going through her impressive but traditional and safe route of accomplishments (“She has been in all the right places.”), the author concludes, “A life lived according to plan is no life at all.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Thoreau’s quote. The author also asks of her, “What lives have you touched? Do you know from first-hand experience the law's power to exterminate hope or yield deliverance?” It is neither my intention here to criticize Kagan nor to criticize that sort of path, but rather to recognize that it is not the path I desire.

The idea of starting up one’s own practice never even occurred to me as an option until Eben brought it up, but it’s one that has become increasingly appealing to me. As is the idea of finding a cause I am passionate about, carving out a niche for myself, and mastering it. When I truly believe in something, I don’t want to exhibit mere lukewarm acceptance. One reason I write this now is that I hope to be able to look back on this and realize either that I have achieved my goal or to realize that I have strayed and that I need to realign myself. I would like to think that had I lived during the Civil Rights Movement, I would have had the conviction to act.

Grace I agree with many of the things you said, and as a whole, the paper is a complete and coherent, but as you stated in the paper, it is only the first level of analysis. What I felt was missing after I finished reading the paper was knowledge of how you were going to bring about this change. The references and similarities you draw on from Dr. King and Elena Kagan's life show a very powerful understanding that you want a life that is not the common route of us lawyers. I want to know how you intend on doing that. You start a little at the end, speaking about how starting a practice is appealing or finding your own niche, but I think more of your paper should be devoted to that issue.

The writing is clear and to the point with only one or two style preferences on my end, nothing that was actually an issue. I enjoyed reading this as it resonates strongly with what this class has taught me and I have taken away from it. You touch on the point of proactive recognition of "stop signs" and I would like to see this point expounded a bit more. Again, the paper overall was a great read and very interesting view on how others feel what this class has taught them. Of course the final paper is up to you, so feel free to take or leave my comments. As of now, I'm going to take a break and come back one more time to make revisions.


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r5 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:24 - IanSullivan
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