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The Driving Force of Indescribable Sadness

I’m a pretty smart guy. Usually. Or, at least, I’m not a stupid guy. I know a few things. Exactly how many is something that is no doubt open for debate. But one of the first things I learned on my own, as a child, is that only a fool thinks he knows everything.

There is no one walking — or crawling — the planet who does not make mistakes. Even robots make mistakes.

One of the hard things for me in navigating this planet is that, as a criminal defense attorney, I’m pretty much expected by my clients to have all the answers. I can’t blame them; mistakes on my part can cost them their freedom.

This expectation on the part of my clients is counter-balanced by interactions with many prosecutors and judges — and please, dear readers, please take note that I said “many” and not “most”; certainly not “all” — who think criminal defense attorneys pretty much have none of the answers.

The truth is absolutely located somewhere between these two poles.

Many — I guess the second lesson I ever learned was that absolutes almost always suck — people who know me might be surprised to know how much I agonize over most of what I do before I actually do it. (I’m not always as good about stopping to think before I speak, but that’s a completely unrelated issue.) The few who know me well inform me that I agonize a little too much.

Not everyone I defend is innocent. (The astute will recognize that the corollary of this is that not everyone I defend is guilty.)

If you’re not sure where I’m going with all this, let me help you feel a little better: As I write this sentence, I’m not sure, either. I have a thought in my mind which I’m finding it difficult to explain. I started writing this to try to figure it out. I forget who said it (some famous writer, no doubt), but one reason for writing is to figure out what we think. The act of writing something out is a terrific way to gain understanding, to learn. (The best part of my life was a several-years-long period during which I spent anywhere from 4-6 hours, trusty fountain pen in hand, journaling; writing to make sense of a morass of loose ideas caterwauling around inside my mind.)

So you’ll bear with me, I hope, while I try to puzzle this one out.

Something happened yesterday — I’m not going to detail it at all, so let me apologize in advance to those who hate unsolved mysteries — and I’m still trying to make sense of it. Suffice it to say that I said something which, in retrospect, I would not say again. It was intended as a joke; it was not taken as a joke. My “I’m sorry” statements were as effective as trying to drown a duck by pouring a glass of water on its back.

Like water off a duck’s back. That’s how my statement should have been taken, if it had been the insult it was misinterpreted as being.

As I said, in retrospect, that is, knowing now what I did not know then, I would not say again what I said then. I intended a joke; not an insult. I thought the person I was talking to was the kind of person — and that I had the kind of relationship with that person — that he would find it funny; that we would share a laugh.

I make mistakes sometimes. Not always. Thankfully, not terribly often. But I make mistakes sometimes.

The thing, however, that drags me into a deeply pensive state over this is the fall-out thus far.

My mistake caused at least two other individuals to make an even bigger mistake. One that both hurts and helps me in thinking about my job as a lawyer. On the one hand, I realize how deeply-institutionalized is the unfairness of our justice system. For I’ve no doubt — none at all — that the individuals in question fail to realize not only how serious was their mistake, but even that it was a mistake. Yet it is the kind of mistake that should never be made by people in their positions.

It is also the kind of mistake that demonstrates a fundamental unfairness, an irredeemable bias. At least here, in this part of the system in which it occurred.

That makes me indescribably sad.

On the other hand, because of that, it reminds me why I do what I do. And after my episode with A Drowning Man, I have to admit that I’ve questioned my commitment to this line of work. I forgot, for the moment, that everyone makes mistakes. Part of my job is defending people when that happens.

Part of my job is reminding those making decisions that they, too, could be mistaken — and trying to convince them that, because of that, we all need to agonize over what we do.

Vincent Hallinan (1896-1992) once said:

Lawyers make a good living off the misery of others….

The truth is, though, it’s not just lawyers. Judges, law enforcement officers, probation officers, correctional officers, social workers…the list goes on. We all make our livings — without a doubt better livings than those we are supposed to serve — off the misery of others.

It is imperative that we do our jobs with open minds, oriented towards justice, fairness and humility.