Saturday, April 5, 2014

Compassion in the Law

I have been reading a lot of Lissa Rankin’s writing recently. You may remember me discussing her before. She is the one who wrote Mind Over Medicine, the book I wrote about back in June (has it really been that long?).

Her most recent writing to inspire me is a blog post called, “A Call for Greater Compassion.” Read it. You will thank me. Her main point is that we all have our faults, we all have our sins, and that is what makes us able to share our compassion with each other. She even asks, “Who are we to judge?” And she ends with a challenge:

Think of one person you’re judging today, one person who isn’t living up to your standards, one person who is disappointing you or doing something you don’t like. Would it be possible for you to tune into the part of that person that is hurting? Can you see that part as a little child who just needs love? Can you open your heart to that little child and reach out to that person with that kind of love?

It is not an easy challenge, for sure. We live in a world where we are taught to judge, even if we are not lawyers. At some level it is biological – we need to be able to tell safety from danger if we are going to survive as a species. But the judgment she discusses, and I think is the bigger issue, is the judgment we place on our fellow human beings for being human, for struggling with life, for making mistakes.

I notice this most in myself when I’m driving. When people do things I am not expecting on the road, I get really riled up. If they slow down to turn without a signal, cut me off, or anything really that does not fit with my ideal of how they should be driving in that moment, I freak out. Guess what? I do all of those things as well. Probably more than I would like to admit, in fact.

This sort of judgment does not serve us at all. But even that judgment can leave us quickly. It is judgment almost more at a situation than at an individual person. After all, we rarely know who cuts us off in traffic, and short of breaking into serious road rage, none of us then go discover their identity. But what about when we judge our friends for their choice in partner, or we judge our parents for how they eat, or we judge our neighbors for struggling with drug addiction, or we judge our soldiers for their mental health issues? What happens to these people when we judge instead of offer compassion? The best-case scenario is we lose someone close to us. The worst-case scenario is that we end up with something similar to the shooting this week at Ft. Hood.

And yet, lawyers are asked to judge all day, every day. It is, literally, in the job description (whether or not you are actually a judge). And think of the people the law judges – rapists, murderers, child molesters and abusers, and thieves. But as odd as it sounds in modern America, these are the people who need our compassion the most. And so do their victims. In parts of the world, the rape victim is the one put to death while the rapist walks free. I think I can say this pretty freely – that does not fit within this picture of compassion either. But I think I have more people on my side for that one. What about the perpetrators of these horrific crimes? Can we find compassion for them while still finding a way to keep other members of society safe from their actions?

When I was a camp counselor, we were taught two things that have stayed with me for the past 17 years: 1) we do not punish, only discipline, and 2) the child is not bad, only their actions are a problem. While my camp did not use the word compassion, we did talk about respect and caring. I have carried these ideas with me, and I try every day to separate the person from the person’s actions. After all, I work with the children who usually love their parents regardless of what they did to them.

But there are days when it is really difficult. There are days the lies become too much, the pain the children face becomes too much, and it is just easier to judge. After all, that is our learned response from a young age. But my yogi heart knows differently. My yogi heart says to ask the questions Dr. Rankin suggests. One day in particular I vividly remember offering compassion to someone who was screaming at me. It was not the first time he did it. The next day he wrote me an email apologizing for his actions. My compassion toward him was silent, but it worked. Never before had he written such an email.

There is no question the legal system is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of compassion than where we were even 20 years ago. We talk about rehabilitative courts, and we utilize alternative dispute resolution where available. We offer people services to help them on their way. But we still have so far to go. The big step, the really difficult step, is changing the attitudes of those of us who work there. The big step is changing the attitudes of society from judgment to compassion.

So, my fellow lawyers, can we find compassion in the law? Can we bring a lens of compassion to our work and still protect society from actions that harm? I had a conversation today with someone whose initial response to my discussion of being a lawyer was saying that the law teaches us not to be compassionate. I disagree. I believe we can do both, and I know so many people who do so on a daily basis. But can we do it all the time? Can we take judgment out of the picture? Can we come to the law with compassion for the people who sit across from us? Are you willing to take Dr. Rankin's challenge?


© Rebecca Stahl 2014, all rights reserved.

The post, Compassion in the Law, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

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