What to do with the rest of one’s life?
Last year, after about two decades I reestablished contact with a lawyer who worked at my first law firm and who started practicing law around seven years before I. We got together for lunch soon after and again a few days ago. Little did I know beforehand how much we had in common about finding meaning in our relatively short lives on this planet. When at that law firm, I did not open up to many colleagues about my personal and political views and yearnings, particularly after hearing a law partner and my supervising senior associate praise Bush I’s then-invasion of Panama during lunch together — coupled with praising the “war on drugs” that I have long seen as a war on the Bill of Rights — after I started there as an associate, and saw yellow ribbons there during Gulf War I without a counterbalance of expressed concern about a war entered much too prematurely by Bush — and found refuge at lunchtime with the peace demonstrators at the nearby Lafayette Park. I threw up my hands about whether I would get anywhere productive talking politics and social justice with my law firm colleagues — beyond the fact that I did express my interest in doing pro bono work with the firm.
Consequently, without telling my law firm colleagues, I reveled in attending my first conference of the National Organization of Marijuana Laws in 1990, where I shared my feelings of law firm isolation on such topics with some conference attendees; attended a pot freedom rally in Lafayette Park not long after; joined a friend in demonstrating against the Senate’s authorizing Gulf War I; joined the second weekend march against Gulf War I; and took out a subscription to High Times in protest against a federal subpoena for the magazine’s advertiser records, writing then-attorney general Dick Thornburgh that I had done so under such protest.
When I left the firm after two years to join the Maryland Public Defender’s Office, I was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that I had found the ultimate job where I could feel more comfortable being open with my colleagues about politics and social justice, but found no such enclave there for such discussions. Such like-minded people may have been there, but I did not find them — maybe in part because I heard few people there speaking of such things that I agreed with, beyond our criminal defense work at hand, so did not seek them out — although I found many who were truly devoted to providing top-flight service to indigent criminal defendants.
I learned many years later about the concept of moving beyond opposing injustice by others to making oneself an example of peace, compassion and justice, to be the change one wants to see in the world. For instance, Lama Surya Das when still Jeffrey Miller, demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and then faced the reality that his friend’s girlfriend Allison Krause was one of the four peaceful antiwar demonstrators gunned down in 1970 by National Guard members. Consequently, he sought a “way to find peace, to become peace. I headed east.” Lama Surya Das is an important inspiration for me on this path. Like me, he grew up Jewish — and I still consider myself Jewish, also into Buddhism and any other spiritual path that teaches me how to become a better person — and found important life answers from the East, and, at least today, is not a monastic. I met Lama Surya Das briefly in 2011 when Krishna Das came to town and later that year when he and Sylvie Boorstein gave spectacular presentations during BuddhaFest’s weekend during the tenth anniversary of the September 11 murders.
Back to my recent lunch with this former law firm colleague. At one point he asked my view on how we should spend our remaining several decades on the planet. Without hesitation, I said that an important part of our remaining time on earth is to serve others and to be compassionate towards them, and of course to ourselves. Ram Dass has been unquestioning about serving and loving others, because he took that as a commandment from his teacher Neem Karoli Baba.
I pointed out that my colleague is already serving others by the devotion and time he has spent in raising his children and paying their college tuition. Of course, I feel I am constantly serving throughout the day, starting with my criminal defense clients alone, but it is important for me to serve beyond doing so for those who have paid me, both through pro bono work and through good deeds beyond my role as a lawyer.
The hesitation many may have about serving is whether those being served will not know reasonable boundaries in dealing with the person serving, or might even try to take advantage of the person serving. That does not justify not serving. The server can always say no when anybody does that.
It is easier emotionally to serve people afar — for instance when I joined and organized human rights campaigns for overseas victims of human rights violations with Amnesty International — than to be looking them straight in the eye when trying to help them. I can always put down my pen to later resume drafting a letter insisting that a government official stop abusing human rights, When with a person in need of help, it is not easy simply to walk away when the emotional and time toll seem to become too much.
Serving others can start with such simple and limited time tasks as compassionately responding to a person’s request for some change, or to sometimes buy the person some food and drink. Sometimes, we can let down our defenses to give a literal or proverbial hug to someone who will feel warmth and maybe even some healing from it. Other simple acts of service include standing up for those being mistreated by police and civilians; and to stand up for children being hit by their parents (beware making the hitting parent feel humiliated, lest s/he express that humiliation through further assaults once at home) and not simply walking by such abuses and pretending they did not occur. Yes, the best way to respond is with compassion to the wrongdoer as well, but not to ignore the trespass.
In that regard, I became all the more happy with my decision to attend law school — where I truly believed law school training and a law license could help me help others all the more for social justice — rather than graduate business school, when in the spring of 1986, when on a dream work assignment for three weeks to Hong Kong, and then followed by further work in Japan, when an employee at the tailor shop where I was picking up my custom-made shirts on my last night in Hong Kong was dehumanizingly tapping-rapping a tailor over the head with a wire hanger, while a manager used angry hand gesticulations for grabbing another’s neck to express his anger at the tailor, apparently because my shirts were not yet ready. When I insisted that this tailor was a human being and that this abuse of him stop, the hanger-hitting employee insisted: “Don’t worry. He is not your tailor,” as if my complaint had been motivated over a selfish interest in seeing my tailor get the job done rather than sustaining a job-delaying headache or head wound from the employee. Back at our headquarters in Manhattan during lunch (this blog entry relates numerous lunchtime experiences), one of my colleagues who was in Hong Kong with me shared his bellylaugh to other colleagues that I got paid back for speaking up by a delay beyond that evening in getting my shirts. Another of my four Hong Kong assignment colleagues expressed puzzlement to our co-workers about my making a “human rights argument” to the hanger assailant and tailor shop manager. Enlightened capitalism exists, but I found no colleagues at this huge commercial bank, the former Irving Trust Company, with whom to commiserate on social justice issues.
Ram Dass asked his guru how he can get enlightened, to which Neem Karoli Baba replied “Serve people, and feed people.” Ram Dass’s fellow Maui resident Wayne Dyer agrees, saying “You’ll find yourself feeling purposeful if you can find a way to always be in the service of others.” 10 Secrets for Success & Inner Peace. I have been convinced of that for a long time.