I call my mother every week. Or at least I try to.
This tradition of weekly phone-calls started during college – back then, this was her way of making sure I was alive, and my way of helping her sleep at night. But since I started law school, these conversations have come to mean something more.
Calling my mother keeps me sane. (Except when she drives me insane, of course). And yes, I know. Staying “sane” in law school may seem like a paradoxical concept. But trust me, I’m not going completely insane. So let me explain.
During the earlier weeks of my 1L year, I would tell my mother that everyone in law school seemed so “intense” and competitive – that at school, everyone viewed me as overly nonchalant – and yet, outside of law school, I felt like I was overly “intense.” I would rant to her about this strange, unexplainable sense of disconnect with the rest of the world, and that the reason for this was not because I wasn’t enjoying what I was learning, or because of the wrath of my 1L schedule.
This sense of disconnect manifested in a number of ways. On weekdays, I would walk around JG, raising my arm to wave at people who clearly knew me, only to awkwardly pretend to comb my hair while they whipped out their phones to pretend-text and speed-walk into the library. On weekends, I would make up ridiculous lies about my occupation so I could get along with non-lawyer crowds (my go-to occupation was: interpretive dancer – it goes without saying that dancing is NOT my forte).
Eventually, this sense of disconnect sprouted into a sense of confusion, which lead me to question whether law school was really where I belonged. And ultimately, this confusion spiraled into general unhappiness and pessimism, which lead me to doubt whether my ultimate goal in life – to make this world a happier place – was unrealistic and overly optimistic.
In response, my mother would tell me anecdote after anecdote about how happy of a baby I was. For example:
“You would just frolic around the neighborhood all day, in your little polka-dotted dress…chirping “hello!” to everyone, striking up conversations in baby gibberish about your collection of Happy Meal toys.”
I assumed she was just enjoying being nostalgic, and didn’t make much of these anecdotes. It wasn’t until her approximately thirtieth anecdote that I realized she actually did have a point. A very important point:
“You were always shy. But you were always so interested in people. I would bring books to your doctor’s appointments, and while your sister sat there actually reading the books, you would lay the books on your lap and carefully study the people around you. Then, you’d tug on my sleeve, and pointing at the shiny scale on your “Rainbow Fish” book, exclaim, ‘Mommy, look! This looks like his head!’ (I had to apologize profusely to the bald man sitting next to us).”
This is when it struck me: being in law school was changing the way I was interacting with people. Instead of inquiring into their unique individual qualities as I used to back when I was a “happy child,” I was constantly issue spotting, subconsciously categorizing the world into one of three categories: clients, competitors, and collaborators. I was feeling so hopelessly lost because I was meandering feebly in these shallow three “Cs”.
Law School presents to us an opportunity to earn a powerful tool – the ability to make the world a better place by solving people’s problems. We are taught how to do so by reading casebooks – stories about all sorts of bizarre problems* people have had in the past, and how lawyers have tried to solve them.
But there’s one thing these cases and most of our classes don’t teach us how to do to: to empathize. Empathy is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” How could one solve, let alone understand people’s problems without the ability to empathize? How could one really be an advocate without the ability share people’s experiences and feelings?
My mother’s anecdotes helped me realize that the reason behind this disconnect I felt during my 1L year was because I let myself get stuck in the shallow Cs. I was drowning in casebooks about people, but was forgetting how to empathize with them.
So there it is. One key to sanity and happiness in law school is empathy. What is the secret to empathy? Leave some space in your mind to truly connect with people. Inquire into their human characteristics. Seek to inspire and to be inspired. There’s a higher chance you’ll have a life-changing epiphany by having a 30 minute conversation with a complete stranger than by spending those extra 30 minutes going over that case you think you’ll be on call for tomorrow. Because after all, whether someone is your client, a competitor, or a collaborator, we are all companions in this crazy, crazy world.
*A brief note on bizarre problems: Can you imagine being electrocuted while watering your neighbor’s flowers while they’re on vacation – so seriously that it melts your sneakers and glasses, your pants set on fire, and your dental plate gets knocked from your mouth? You really can’t make this up. (If you can’t imagine, look up Herbert v. Enos)