Law in Contemporary Society

My Practice of Fear

-- By JabariMatthew - 16 Apr 2021

My Fear of Being Worthless

James Baldwin expressed in his essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind” that if one continuously survives the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring. The newfound ability to no longer be controlled by the fear of what life can bring comes from the fact that in order to save your life, you are forced to look beneath appearances, take nothing for granted, and hear the meaning behind words. These sentiments remind me of themes mentioned in this course, such as that creation is where pain exists, the fact that we can always look at something in more ways than one, and the idea that the life of law is not logic, but the messiness of experience.

The Comfort of Gold Stars

1L made me realize that I most fear the feeling of being worthless. In Baldwin’s essay, he expressed that people cannot live without their sense of worth, and as such, the most dangerous creation of any society is one who has nothing to lose. I know I am terrified of feeling worthless from conscious and subconscious experience; it reminds me of my experiences traversing the segregated climate of New York City, growing up in a low-income community, being intellectually doubted, and my own humiliating encounters with police officers. 1L has been helpful in illuminating what it is I fear most because of the “gold stars” to be passed around, from extracurricular activities, grades, internships, moot court competitions and journals. I am beginning to believe however, that the only way I will have a fulfilling and empowering creative legal practice is if my fear of not having a happy and creative legal practice trumps my longstanding fear of feeling worthless.

The Need for Fear

At the same time, perhaps my fear of worthlessness will not only allow me to see more clearly, but will also allow me to tap into a deep degree of creativity that I can utilize to enrich my career and the lives of others. I am more interested in utilizing my fears than getting rid of them, and constantly having to fight my fears, winning every now and again but never overcoming. More importantly, I am interested in figuring out how to expose pain and fears in others in order to enable others to see more clearly. Law school is a great place to begin, for as previously stated in this course, no matter how hard law school tries, society will always creep in. Society, as suggested in this course, is that messiness, pain and reality that gives law its true life and meaning, and not the sanitized fallacies of logic.

The Eradication of Shame

While I need fear, the only way fear will not completely consume me is through the eradication of shame. Self-worth is a personal project; it is a journey that can be facilitated by external forces, but that cannot be actualized without personal accountability and effort. In my experience, fear of worthlessness is often a result of one’s perceived relationship to their external circumstances. Shame, however, is a debilitating and toxic feeling of personal embarrassment. It is a feeling of profound self-inadequacy as a person, fueled by one’s own observation of themselves and, though not always apparent, only loosely attached to one’s external circumstances. To be afraid is a natural human emotion that can remind one of just how strong and resilient they are when they survive their fears, and how much they care to be the best version of themselves. Shame, however, can produce a never-ending spiral into self-defeat and a harsh self-criticism that may not be warranted, and is certainly not constructive. This distinction is important as fear and shame can be hard to distinguish. While feelings of worthlessness have crept into my mind growing up as a low-income Black male, I am not ashamed of my identity nor my upbringing. That understanding equips me with courage to press on and confront fears, knowing that no matter what, I am not ashamed of who I am.

How This Applies to My Practice

I believe people are generally terrified of losing a sense of self-worth or identity. My practice must illuminate that fear in order to create that sense of clarity in one’s mind, and then help others constantly fight against that fear in order to feel empowered by their persistent survival. Reminiscent of what Thoreau described as the plague of pervasive selfishness, I know that there are likely enough people who trick themselves into believing that self-worth equates to gains not outside of personal wealth or accolades. My practice must fight against that trickery which works to allow others to dissociate themselves from their fear of lack of self-worth, and instead, remind others that there is something more intangible that truly defines self-worth. Perhaps it is as simple as respect, power, or “a seat at the table.” Either way, those intangibles are far harder to gain, but much more worth fighting for.

My practice must expose the truths of this country, the flaws of humans, and all the pain that comes with that, because such exposition will come people’s fear of continuing this pain, and then the self-empowerment in knowing that every day that we fight to overcome, though we do not completely overcome, we at least survive. And as Baldwin expressed, it is the survival of death that brings the control. It is a picture for my practice that I can readily imagine taking, but that truthfully, I intend to spend my remaining time at Columbia and beyond learning how to actually take.

The best route to improvement here, in my view, is to start by tightening the writing, stringently. The present draft weakens its force significantly by repetition and baggy sentence structure. Every sentence must contribute a new idea. Every word must be doing work that cannot be done by any other word. After pruning and compression you will have elegance. Also, you will have space in which to introduce the other topic of the essay, which is only implicit in this draft: the difference between fear and shame. Your central insight is that fear can be a root of creativity, an emotion one could better live with than overcome. But this insight requires the distinction from shame, which is the most destructive of human emotions. When we come to "fear of worthlessness," we are standing on the border, which is where this fascinating and powerful essay has something important to say.

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r3 - 02 Jun 2021 - 07:12:07 - JabariMatthew
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