Ed. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, which certainly evokes the memory of Oscar Grant (partially because I just watched Fruitvale Station, which by the way, was fantastic) everybody is suddenly a legal expert on Facebook.
As fun as it sounds, I’m refraining from posting any pseudo-legal analysis or getting into any online debates because quite simply, I don’t know the facts any better. The jury heard from THIRTY FIVE witnesses and they probably don’t know the facts either.
But legal debates sadly sterilize the human aspect, namely, the loss of a human life (and the effective loss of another). At the end of the day, the losers are both the Martin and Zimmerman families, as well as society as a whole. The immediate lessons I’ve gleaned are that (1) bandaids can’t hide the centuries-old scars and wounds of our divided society, and (2) the Trayvon Martin case is the culmination of what this entire post is essentially about. About how vengeance is always easier than forgiveness; exclusion, easier than acceptance; hatred, easier than love.
For our sake, we must never forget the better angels of our nature: love, compassion, and forgiveness.
* * *
In all seriousness, I probably dread my birthday more than any day of the year. Sometimes, bad things will accidentally happen, like almost dying. On a more serious note, I’ve always thought that planning something for myself is borderline self-indulgent, mostly because I’m not sixteen anymore nor am I particularly super or sweet. (Even writing this seems borderline self-indulgent too.) This one time in high school, I told a whole bunch of church people that I’d be waiting at a park all day on my birthday in order to at least see them separately since they couldn’t all do something at the same time. Actually that’s pretty much exactly what happened: I waited at the park all day. They must have been busy praying or something. Perhaps this is even more self-indulgent, but I think the best birthdays I’ve had were spent doing things that I wanted to do (although getting N64 games was admittedly pretty sweet) with people that I wanted to be around. Regardless, the best gifts sometimes come from the places you’d least expect.
* * *
I’m standing outside a swanky sushi restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. I’ve long exhausted any desire to keep playing Fall Down or Candy Crush, and it’s still only 2:30. Still a lonely half an hour before I’m supposed to meet up with an acquaintance, a first-year associate at a cushy Los Angeles litigation firm, for coffee and career advice. I review her firm profile and LinkedIn again, or she might think that I’m only talking to her because I need a job. A forced networking connection, just the way that Career Services teaches.
1. You see a guy with a Duke luggage tag at the airport.
2. Tap his shoulder and ask, “what year?”
3. He’ll tell you something, but that’s irrelevant, because you’ll say, “Hello, I’m a rising 2L at Duke University School of Law. I’m interested in litigation because I find oral argument exciting.” (I obviously haven’t worked on my 30 second cookie-cutter elevator speech yet.)
4. He’ll tell you that he knows a partner that he can put you in touch with. How convenient.
5. Shake his hand and send him a thank you email when you get back.
6. Be yourself, but don’t use humor.
7. Shake hands and hope they’re not too sweaty.
8. Rinse and repeat.
I bet they’d be proud though. A perfectly scripted, un-ad-libbed conversation in a perfect world where 100% of law students get the $160,000 big law job they want. But I dread those bastardizations of human connections to the point where I’d almost rather go back to my phone and completely unplug from the world around me. I have my phone out, drafting an angry blog post that I want to upload later. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him walking in my direction. He’s a gaunt man wearing oversized dusty clothes, with a sun-weathered face and sunken eyes. I hear him loudly lamenting to nobody in particular, “Aw man, I missed it. I missed it.” He makes a bee line straight towards me. I’m really hoping he doesn’t talk to me, because I have a feeling exactly how this is going to go.
“Um, excuse me sir, my name is Isaac.”
I can’t decide whether to shake my head to make him go away or nod to acknowledge him, and I think I end up just making a strange circular motion with my head that looks like I’m falling asleep or having a seizure or something.
“I’m not looking for drugs or alcohol, but I haven’t eaten in four days. Can you please just get me some Flame Broiler?”
I start to mumble something about not having cash and hope the $10 bill in my back pocket doesn’t decide to grow a conscience and jump out.
“I’m sorry, there’s usually more people inside. I got here a bit late and missed it.”
I’m not ready for the tears in his eyes. Damn it. Career Services never taught us what to do in this situation, and I have a feeling that talking to homeless people is probably not in the script. I think my conversion rate goes a bit like this: 1 Awkward Second = 10 Normal Seconds = 10,000 Law School Exam Seconds.
“Please? I’m really hungry.”
I’m afraid he’s going to start crying, and as I peer into his soul through those liquid mirrors, I see my own scars. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in such a single span of time as I have in these past months. I’m not embarrassed whatsoever, because it’s not a sign of weakness, but an admission of brokenness. Babies cry because they don’t know what else to do. There were some days when I really didn’t know what else to do either when faced with the triple threat of the most emotionally, mentally, and physically draining semester of my life (not counting copious amounts of Constitutional Law reading). But for all the lack of sleep, seemingly impossible amount of work, immense stress of having the foreseeable future placed in my fingers over the course of a mere twenty hours, and social disconnections that I clawed blindly through, I imagine that this man’s life must be infinitely harder. Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. And this may be his admission that he had nowhere left to go.
“Yeah, um, what do you want?”
Anything with beef, he said, because he loved beef. All of a sudden, that really cheap beef bowl looked really good. Be kinder than necessary. Well, if I was going to buy him something anyway, why buy him something that I wouldn’t get for myself? And if I hadn’t eaten in four days, a large beef plate with brown rice (watching out for his refined carbohydrates) and vegetables (watching out for constipation) would look even better.
“Thank you so much, sir. God bless you. God bless you.”
He carefully wraps the Flame Broiler in a plastic bag and slides it into a worn messenger bag, stuffed with a radio barely held together by strips of duct tape, a couple tattered legal pads, and the remnants of wrappers from snacks enjoyed a long time ago. Be kinder than necessary. Well, if I was going to buy him something to eat, might as well help him find a place to stay too.
“Hey, uh, are you homeless? I used to work for this agency that I think provides housing services…”
He pulls a Sharpie out of his bag. It’s absolutely incredible how even the slimmest scintilla of hope can give someone the strength to fight for another day. As I dictate the address and general directions to my old non-profit agency, I realize that she has been peering at us cautiously from behind a luggage dolly the entire time. She’s around the size of my sister, but maybe 30 years older and 20 pounds lighter, which is hard even for me to imagine. But she has the same gaunt face as Isaac, same sun-weathered skin wrapped around nothing more than bones. To this woman, wandering through the desert, I probably look like an oasis.
“Excuse me, sir, can you spare something to eat?”
Isaac apologizes quickly.
“No, sorry, he’s helping me right now.”
She thanked us anyway and hurried away. I was taken aback at what I perceived to be ungratefulness, but I guess it would be unfair to impose my value system on him. A furtive glance at my phone. 2:53. Seven minutes. My mind is back in a sterile world where communication occurs between faceless investors. Individuals whose stories are consisted of zeroes and dollar signs. There is a strange sense of forced detachment when I am in any professional situation, almost as if being human is being weak.
9. “Good luck.”
It seems almost like an empty platitude. As I turn to walk to the coffeeshop, I see her trudging along the sidewalk, luggage dolly squeaking behind her. No, these moments, these connections between souls, are what make us human. It finally makes sense. Love is such an amorphous concept. It’s not really an emotion, because emotions come and go, and love shouldn’t. If it does, I don’t think it was really love to begin with. Again, not necessarily what society defines as romantic love (go away Nicholas Sparks). I’ve always defined love as a commitment, but that almost makes it sound like a chore. Sure, you’re committed to things you love, but you don’t have to think about being committed. You just are, and you just know. But love, at its very essence, is a connection. Some sort of a cosmic, natural bond between you and another person. The shared experience and ingrained consciousness of being on the same piece of rock hurtling through light-years of nothingness. I jog after her. The $10 bill in my back pocket grows a conscience and jumps from my hand to its new owner’s.
“Here. I have to run, but take this.”
Her eyes beam. The Force is is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Everybody treats me like crap. Thank you.”
As I run into the coffeeshop and prepare to apologize for being late, I close the associate’s LinkedIn page and firm profile and delete the angry blog post. Because even precise calculations and scripted lines can’t prepare you for the spontaneity of human connection. Because the Death Star wasn’t destroyed by the cold calculation of a targeting computer, but by connecting with the spontaneous nature of the Force.
* * *
Now I’m standing inside a courtroom inside the third largest federal courthouse in the nation. The blinding sunlight reflecting off the cavernous white marble hallways that seem to stretch on to eternity paints a scene vaguely reminiscent of conceptions of heaven that I had in a dream some time. In a sense, it is kind of like heaven. Judgment Day, happening in neatly arranged rows of courtrooms for probably thousands of people each day. They say that the polished wood paneling is derived from only one tree. All too fitting. One branch, leading to Life, and the other branch, to Life Imprisonment. And today was his judgment day.
His rap sheet was probably longer than this Report and Recommendation that I’ve been working on for the past month or so. A parade of offenses including things along the lines of armed robbery, battery, criminal assault. Oddly enough, he probably knows more about what it’s like to be human than average law-abiding citizens, hermetically sealed from humanity by a parade of earbuds and iPhones and Samsung Nexuses and Galaxies S-2 through S-234234224726394.
As cold and emotionally detached as I can be, I think it’s fair to say that I can be inexplicably compassionate and generous at times, as long as there’s that deeper connection to someone’s soul, to a shared experience or worldview.
10. His lawyers plead his case passionately to the judge. They ask for leniency and mercy, advance arguments and data about recidivism, about how he was trying to get his life back on track.
When asked to if he would like to make a statement, he only mumbles:
“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I’m trying.”
11. “When will you learn? You’ve had way too many chances, young man. No more. You need to learn. Seven years.”
I guess it could have been worse. The prosecution was actually asking for closer to ten years. The only sounds in this solemn courtroom come from his family, stifling sobs in the gallery behind me. When the judge says this, I can’t help but feel for the young man, probably not much older than I am, partially because I also known what it’s like to hurt others, to betray, lie, steal, manipulate. In fact, we’ve all been prodigal at some time, and nobody should ever be defined by the dark side of our nature.
But I also know what it’s like to to be loved, forgiven, for others to have mercy on me when I don’t deserve it. So here’s the important thing. All of us deserve to be told that we’re loved or that we matter a whole lot to someone, because love is really the connection that brings humanity together. The opposite of love is not hate. It’s apathy. It’s not mattering to anybody, which is why loneliness seems to be the ultimate antithesis to human nature. Love isn’t some game devoid of consequences that tears people apart, and emphatically, certainly, definitively not about getting lucky or getting some (sorry, Daft Punk). It’s those moments when you look into the eyes of a stranger who needs help and helping them feels like helping someone you’re so familiar with that it’s almost like you’re helping yourself. Or maybe those moments when you want someone to succeed because their success is yours. Or those moments when we take a step back from our schisms and differences and constructed barriers and just remember that we all came from the same place.