THE STRATEGIC LAWYER + + + politics.::. get the jist.::

On Windmills, Don Quixote and Family Law



Don Quixote by Gustave Dore (public domain)

This past weekend, I gave a talk on why I chose family law as one of my primary areas of practice. This is a slightly adapted version of the talk I gave.

Part 1:  the Road to La Mancha

“It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to help them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”

This is a quote from El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Miguel de Cervantes, published in the early seventeenth century.

The novel tells the story of the aging, retired country gentleman, Alonso Quixana, who reads so many texts about chivalry, featuring knights errant, heroic quests and the standard, medieval tropes of the age of chivalry, that his sense of reality is transformed.

Donning a battered and ancient suit of armour, he resolves to rescue the world from evil and darkness in the manner of a heroic knight of old. He calls himself Don Quixote and sallies forth on his heroic quest. When he looks at the world, he sees castles, where others see dilapidated taverns, fair noblewomen where others see tavern wenches and prostitutes and, most famously, ravaging giants, where others see innocuous windmills.

The image of Quixote, on his bedraggled horse Rocinante, accompanied by the rotund Sancho Panza, with a windmill in the background, is iconic.

Indeed, the symbol of the Quixote has acquired a life, as well as metaphor and meaning, well beyond those suggested in the original novel. Four centuries later, in another language, on a distant continent, and in a country that didn’t exist when Cervantes lived, we still use the phrase “tilting at windmills” and the adjective “quixotic” to describe overly idealistic, unrealistic quests, motivations or actions.

Depending on who is doing the telling, Quixote was a foolish and deluded old man–the butt of jokes and a vehicle through which to express a biting satire of society, attitudes and indeed, human nature itself.

Or–and this depiction has become more prevalent in recent decades–Quixote is seen as an endearing idealist. We admire him for dreaming an impossible dream–impossible not just because it posits an unrealistic outcome, but because Quixote’s most fundamental perception of reality consists of something more beautiful than the harsh, banal reality of the world that is seen by everyone around him. And in this romanticized, chivalric reality in which good and evil are clearly defined and easy to identify, it may still not be easy to do the right thing, but at least it’s clear what the right thing to do happens to be.

* * *

When I told people I was going back to school to study law, many reactions from friends and acquaintances gave me the impression that they figured I was setting out to fight the good fight, to strive for justice, to embark upon a quixotic quest to change the world.

Confession time: that wasn’t me.

See, the problem is, I’ve never been a black and white kind of person—for me it’s always been about the grey, the nuance, the complexity.

The world is a beautiful, miraculous, messy and complicated place. Resources are limited, motivations are complex, and it’s rare that the path of “doing the right thing” is clearly defined, with signposts and arrows–even internal ones. I look at the world, at people, and see layer upon layer of ambiguity, complexity and a resulting equivocation about what is the best course of action, both with respect to many of those big picture, policy based challenges we are facing, but also in the context of everyday choices.

So I didn’t go to law school out of lofty or quixotic motivations. I went for a couple of far simpler reasons. The first had to do with finding a job and paying the bills. That basic need for a different job than the one I had been doing, and that was no longer tenable, had given rise to a process of seeking—a quest, if you will.

There were a few career options I was contemplating, and I remember discussing the matter with a friend, because I wasn’t sure if law was for me.

At one point in the conversation, she said, “Something to remember, Susan: many deeply spiritual people, like Gandhi and Mandela, began by studying law.”

When she said that, something clicked. I said, “Right. Seeing the ways in which humans govern themselves, and how they choose to treat each other, provided them with a point of entry into their explorations of the human spirit.”

It was an epiphany of sorts.

Now, it still wasn’t about solutions. By nature, I’m cautious about positing solutions. In some ways it seems to me that a significant theme underlying human history features the following story:  someone formulates an ingenious solution to a problem that has been plaguing society—and that solution in turn engenders consequences far worse than the original problem it was meant to fix.

But, while I may be hesitant about presenting solutions, particularly to the big problems and challenges we face, I am deeply intrigued by the problems themselves, and am drawn by the quest to understand those problems as deeply as I can. And so, the second reason I went to law school was because I thought it would be interesting—and because it would help me acquire the language I’d need in order to delve more deeply in my desire to understand the problems of politics and policies. To examine the complexities of rights, governance and other such tangles.

And I was right. I found law school absolutely fascinating. I felt so deeply fortunate to be able to study the subjects I studied. Sure, there were significant stresses and challenges, but overall, each day that I attended, I felt deep gratitude for the privilege I had been given—the ability to study the language that we as humans use to regulate and legislate our lives and our interactions. The language of rights.

In studying law, I was able to see the loftiness of our aspirations, in documents like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the International Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the ways in which we poignantly and tragically fall short of those aspirations. The Criminal Code—and indeed the Charter itself—wouldn’t need to exist and wouldn’t need to be given binding power, if individuals, corporations and governments didn’t engage in practices that were harmful and needed to be curbed.

And so, I did gain insight into the complexities and challenges of politics, policy, rights and governance. But that proximity to notions of justice and of rights, made me also see how layered, elusive and contradictory a concept like “justice” actually is.

* * *

Throughout law school, the one class I avoided was Family Law. The law of divorce, custody, support, access and property. The law of broken hearts and fragmented lives. I ended up taking it in my final semester of my final year.

I disliked the class even more than I expected to. It bothered me, reading all these cases in which reasonable, average—likely generally nice—people were being horrible to each other.

Looking ahead, to my future as a lawyer, I figured I’d aim for something like corporate law, commercial transactions, or perhaps real estate. Something that would pay the bills, and not keep me up at night.

And so, when I received the email from my articling supervisor on the Thursday before I started my new job, saying that I’d begin by working in the family law practice at the firm, I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. A deep dread settled in its place.

Come Monday, I would be working in that dreaded area of practice. I’d be meeting those angry, embittered people. They’d be complaining about their exes, venting at me, and about me—often as not right to my face. I had trouble sleeping, in the nights leading up to my first day, as I thought about it all and the dread churned away, at the prospect of the mad world I’d be wading into all too soon.

Part 2:  …And not to Yield

As I prepared myself for the three and a half months I’d be working in the Family Law practice, I resolved to grit my teeth and just bear it out.  Get it over with.

I drove to the office and pulled into the parking lot on a sunny summer morning.

My first day was eye opening. One of the lawyers at the office took me to court with her, and as we drove over, she explained to me the facts of the case. I have elided all the specifics, and sadly, the general contours of the circumstances are not as uncommon as we might wish or hope: it involved a child, both of whose parents had histories of addiction—one was probably clean, but still had significant impulse control and anger challenges. The other was probably still using, but claimed to be clean.

Over the course of the morning, sitting in court, hearing not just our matter, but other cases being heard by the judge, something began to shift.

My perspective.

In the days that followed, all my negative impressions about family law were borne out. I saw normal people, in difficult times, being terrible to people whom they had once loved, and in some cases still did love. I saw people lashing out because of the pain they themselves felt, and acting in ways that weren’t in their own, nor anyone else’s best interests.

And yet, by the end of that first week, I knew I wanted to practice family law.

“Why the change?” you may wonder.

Part of it had to do with bearing witness.

It’s rare that we see the kind of pain, anxiety, distress and vulnerability I often see through this work. In my day-to-day life to that point, I usually saw what people chose to show of themselves via the façade of their personalities. This isn’t a bad thing.

But, in family law, when people are at their most vulnerable, and are faced with such difficult times, the mask of personality slips, and deeper character is revealed. At some profound level, it felt like a privilege, something resonant, and heartbreaking and vitally important to be respectful of: namely, being able to glimpse that deeper self, in the face of someone’s heartbreaking trauma, at seeing the life he or she has built so carefully, with hard work, determination and devotion, fall apart.

Another part of the reason for my change of mind had to do with something else—something unexpected.

The idea of making a difference. Not on a vast scale. No earth-shattering transformation, no shifts at the level of national policy. No easy solutions.

Nor was it about slaying giants—illusory or otherwise. There were no giants.

It was just about trying to make a very small difference, maybe in the lives of one or two people at a time, in facilitating the process of transition from one life, one set of hopes and expectations, into another, and in trying to make a stressful, financially and emotionally ruinous process a little more humane.

* * *

In less than a year of practice, I’ve had cases involving the deaths of children, dealt with individuals suffering from the consequences of abuse, sexual assault, a wide gamut of mental illnesses, convictions both past and present. I have had people coming in, asking what they need to do, and how they have to plan things in anticipation of walking out of a relationship that has become horrifying and frightening, or that has simply grown stale and empty, over the years.

I have seen so many wounded, hurting, deeply sad and scarred souls, sitting across from me, telling me their stories.

I have also seen people make extraordinary efforts to change, and to be better than what they have been. I have seen restraint in the face of intense, emotional provocation. I have seen striving, and I have seen succumbing. It is a deeply sad line of work. But it feels important. And maybe, just maybe, I’m helping a little bit—though I can’t even be sure of that.

* * *

Ultimately, one thread of this story—this quest narrative of my time in law school, my search for a career, and my eventual choice of Family Law, has been about accidentally finding faith along the way.

Yet, it is also about unhitching faith from any notion of deity.

The kind of faith I discovered, that first day that I arrived at the family law practice and accompanied the senior lawyer on her court visit, has nothing to do with deity and entities. It is simply this: I began to have faith that some of the things I do in this work could help someone else in a small but meaningful way. That it might make a difference. I may never have proof of it, but that is the nature of faith.

Quixote saw himself as a noble knight, fighting the good fight. Others looked at him and saw a foolish, deluded old man, eccentrically attired, engaging in pointless battles because he saw monsters in windmills. There is a truth in that perception, just as there is a subjective truth to Quixote’s perception of himself and of the world around him. Many people regard the more idealistic family law lawyers—and indeed, idealists in general—as windmill tilters. I think some might see me that way, as well.

But for me, there is a key difference. I’m not drawn by the idea of falling into the world of illusions that was Quixote’s reality, no matter how compelling. I prefer to see the world in all its frustrating, often insoluble complexity. But there is still a lesson to be learned from Quixote, which has to do with the value of looking deeper, and seeing beyond the surface realities. It is about seeking to perceive the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.

Ultimately, at some level, I choose to make a spiritual practice out of seeking to perceive castles overlaid upon taverns, noblewomen in tavern wenches, beauty in the everyday, and the suffering, injured souls curled inside the angry people we meet in this line of work. It remains heartbreaking, stressful, emotionally taxing. On weekends at home, I often find myself worrying about clients, about access visits, about whether support got paid when it was supposed to be paid.

And in all honesty, no matter the kind of faith I might hold, I am also deeply aware that is the kind of job that drains people emotionally and burns people out. But I didn’t choose it because it was the easy path. I chose it because once I found it, I also found I couldn’t walk away from it without wrenching something out from deep inside of me.

Come, my friends, 
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
-From “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


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This entry was posted on March 10, 2014 by in Family Law, Op/ed, Rights.
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