The Gaps of Unknowing

June 27, 2019

It is strange when you appear in a courtroom and the "opposing party"you will soon cross-examine has read your material from some blog. But this happened to me two days ago. I then proceeded to do my "day job" and came home. I put the "opposing" and "party" in quotes above because this is what we lawyers typically call and how we think of the (former or soon-to-be-former) spouse or significant other of our client. But, in today's context, it feels so harsh. Here's someone who has read my writing (such as it is) from time to time and even graciously had some kinds words to say about it the other day. He or she could have said "screw you, Brendan - you're as much of a preening prick online as you are here." Instead, I got an unexpected and undeserved compliment. Which was a little hard to hear knowing what I was about to do when the gavel fell. 

 

When I am doing my "real job," I probably don't seem like a very nice person to this individual and when I am doing my "real job," I am trying to be a zealous advocate for my client and paint this person and the facts in a particular way - there is no harm in acknowledging this. This person and I don't know each other outside of litigation. In a normal world, our paths would only cross in litigation. We could each go through life viewing each other only as we see each other in a courtroom - sporadically and partially. 

 

But I find myself waxing slightly philosophical this morning as the weekend nears. I realize that I know as little about this person (and any person I deal with in court) as that person does about me. Presumably this person, like all the others before and those to come, has interests and likes, fears, curiosities and focuses. This person laughs and cries and reads and writes and does all manner of things every day. This person had a childhood and a relationship with the person my colleague and I represent, and became a parent just like me. This person was also a kid once and will also get old one day. This person coexists with me and all of you in a shared world that isn't just a windowless room in a courthouse tower. But it is funny how little of other people's humanity we really think about until we think about it. 

 

I probably see this person, or any "opposing party" for that matter, on less than a dozen or so days each year. And the lens through which we see each other is very distorting. To these people, I am the jerk lawyer who is showboating and carrying on with beating up a witness. To me, the other person is a dodgy witness trying to evade me and get something our client indicated that we should prevent. 

 

But "is that all there is?" - like the old Peggy Lee song invokes. It isn't. That person went home the other night just like I did. To a child that person loves. Just like I did. I haven't always been "nice" in Court to this person (or to others). I haven't always seen the positions that person (or others) take(s) as right or fair. What I think I know is 1/100th of that person's or any litigant's story. And vice versa. 

 

Which now leads me to expand the lens and apply this also to our "opposing counsel." This person's lawyer has also indicated that he has read my material here. He too was somewhat complimentary. We then both proceeded to act like quarrelsome kids on a school yard and duke it out. At the end of the hearing, I came over and just to make sure (and because I actually don't like interpersonal conflict) said: "you know I'm just bullshitting, right?" He put out his fist and we bumped. 

 

That is a lawyer and person I can deal with. That is how it should be. I don't really know this lawyer anymore than he knows me. We go to Court and yell and carry on and fight. I do things my way which aggravates him in the moment and he does the same and I feel the same. But then it ends and he goes his way and I go mine. He likes Noir as do I. He practices law as do I. He doesn't take it personally either. We see each other more than in the example above, but it is still only a sliver of time in our lives. Beyond that, we are mysteries to one another.

 

And most of our colleagues opposite of us are and always will be. Perhaps, if we all had more experiences where our felt- and lived- lives intersected in more personal and direct or less conflict-laden ways, we would be a little easier on our opposites and they on us. That would be a good thing. We make judgments and assessments of each other based on very skewed and incomplete data points. And others make those same assessments of us with similarly inadequate bases. 

 

Which now leads me to our colleagues at work. We spend so much time with our work family. Sometimes it feels like it is as much time as that which we spend with our "real" family. And yet mysteries abound here too. We think we know them and that they know us. We spend years or more interacting with them and sometimes our personal lives intersect. But in so many ways, the enigma of really "knowing/not knowing" persists. Just as the opposing party and the opposing counsel do not "know" us (or we them) - even our friends and colleagues closest to us also seem often to not know us, nor do we really know them. I have heard much that heartens me about this project we do from strangers, clients, opponents (both counsel and parties) and many others about this project. I have also heard much that concerns me and saddens me from colleagues, acquaintances and friends. And that is ALL good and it is ok. Sometimes, we find surprises where we don't expect them and sometimes the most difficult or challenging things are the things with the people we are closest too. 

 

I think part of this is, as touched on above, the way in which we all assume certain things. About ourselves and what others know of us and what others assume about themselves and then about us. In many ways the mysteries of those closest to us (as well as those regarding ourselves as we present to them) are the most vexing. Because of our general familiarity with these people, we develop blind spots with them (and vice versa) that we do not with those more distant from us - like those explored above. 

 

Which then, if we drill down further gets us to grappling with the mysteries of real family. Our Moms and Dads. Our spouses or significant others. Our kids. Certainly we REALLY know those people. They aren't witnesses or lawyers or work chums. They are family. We know everything. Right? There is no ambiguity there. From bad bathroom habits to stuff people don't discuss in polite company. We know it. And that is all true to a point. But then... 

 

How many times do we practitioners hear clients tell us: " I never really knew..." Perhaps it is because they didn't. And because we don't. And maybe it is because we never can. And possibly because we never will. And in a way that is also sort of ok. But moreover - sometimes we all seem to know (or think we do) more than we actually understand. About ourselves, our spouses, our colleagues, our work acquaintances and the "opposing party." Let us ALL try to understand more and know less on all these fronts. On every level. Let us all think of everyone as being as unique and special and individual as we think of ourselves. Because they are. We all have feelings. Egos. Backstories.  

 

In one approach to acting, the actor populates the characters he plays by richly inhabiting them with a full and robust "backstory." It is a device to enable a simulacrum of reality for those observing who he plays. It is an aid for the stories of the playwright or screenwriter that he assists in telling. It is, by my lights, a generally sound approach. Because we all actually have them in reality. Me. Vanessa. Our son. Our Work Folk, Our Opposing Counsel and Our Opposing Parties. You. Let us all always be mindful that our view of the sea takes in only the water's edge and a minor distance beyond. All of us in reality surpass that visible view by leagues and miles and more. Not to mention the depths below. Here's to more understanding and less knowing. On every level. 

 

It would be good if we all could see more clearly. In a new light. In a different light. In a softer light. Whatever light it is, it should be more kind and more fair and more forgiving than that which we typically view ourselves, our "opponents," and our families. We ALL deserve being shot through a little "cheese-cloth" now and again. Which doesn't detract from reality at all. If anything, it adds to it. We all want our foot-faults to be taken as blips and not blimps. May we all show that same generous interpretations to others that we wish for ourselves. 

 

It is easy to dehumanize (or perhaps more accurately "mis-humanize") inadvertently and quickly. We see this at a macro level in our politics and culture, when groups become the scapegoat or whipping posts for positions, attitudes, agendas and the like. At the personal level, we do this too however. We turn people, from our spouses and parents and colleagues and others into two dimensional objects. And we become such objects to others. Part of this is natural to how human minds work and seem to need to create short cuts and heuristics to operate efficiently. But when we engage in this, we cheat others and ourselves out of something very important -- being seen as a person and seeing people as a man or woman "in full."

 

We can't really get inside other people's heads. We can't fully know their lives. In "August: Osage County," the character Violet Weston - the matriarch of the family - addresses her clan at a funeral dinner after the death of her husband. In a monologue that is compelling and moving on many levels, she chides her three daughters when one of them claims to feel " viciously attacked" by her. She admonishes her eldest daughter, Barbara, "what do you know about attacks?" And proceeds to tell her "you do not know" and then explains briefly about actual attacks with clawhammers, living a childhood in cars and "life on these plains." Although her speech to the assembled family is in one sense a vicious attack, it is also a window into Violet - a mother, a wife, a sister and woman. We see and hear, in her pain, a bit of her own backstory and her husband's as well.

 

We can see, or at least understand better, how Violet got to where she did. It is also easy to see why her daughters see Violet in the way they do in other parts of the play/movie. And it is easier to understand why Violet seems to see her daughters in a similarly incomplete fashion. When she takes in each of them, and screams directly at each: "what do you do?" and "who are you?" - our hearts and stomachs sink. But the question, though delivered with bile in that moment, is actually a good one for us all to ponder. The Weston family was a complicated and conflicted assemblage of three daughters, two parents and some interesting extended family. The degree to which their physical and genetic proximities still did not permit them to ever fully know or see things about one another is what I am exploring here.

 

As I wind this up, my summary is this: whether it is ourselves, our children or our parents, our spouses, our friends, our colleagues or our opponents in court - there is so much we do not know and will never know. We should think about that more. We should make that "known unknown" and/or "unknown unknown" (to pinch some terms for a moment from Don Rumsfeld) consciously more central. I am not in that opposing party's shoes nor have I lived that person's life. That person also has not lived mine. And none of us ever can really get to that "crux of the biscuit" as Violet Weston called it. Ever. 

 

In our relationships at home or work - let us try to meditate on that fact before any of us (you or me or them) speak or act or write. And let us do the same when others speak or act or write. Let us all mutually try to briefly pause and think - what don't I know? We make a lot of assumptions every day - most of them benign and facilitative of getting from point A to point B. But our personal blinders and blinkers sometimes inadvertently divert our interpersonal assumptions. Taking more of a moment in such times helps, I think. And perhaps also, sitting down with our own "stuff" and truly acknowledging that other people have their own "stuff."

 

Everybody's got a story. Don't ever presume you know mine, nor should I ever presume that I know yours. The opacity inherent in human life can be tricky. It can also be managed or at least addressed. Through open communication, greater compassion and a little perspective. It won't ever be perfect - but it can soften the edges a bit. Our parents and grandparents gave us wisdom. Our various faith traditions, apart from whether they provide theological or metaphysical truth, also gave us wisdom. Walking a mile in another's shoes... The log in my eye and the speck in the other man's... The Golden Rule... Good stuff overall. Let us all consider getting back to some of those basics. 

 

Enjoy your weekend. Vanessa will have her pre-weekend post tonight. See you next week. 

 

 

 

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