Law in Contemporary Society
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Colombia ... Columbia

-- By MarenHulden - 17 Apr 2010

The Question

As we make life decisions, big and small, at some point following the conventional next steps will likely come into conflict with our convictions. “If I do what is expected of me now, then eventually I will be free to do what I really want,” or, “If I can just keep moving up the ranks, eventually I’ll have enough conventional authority that I will truly be able to do good for those who have none.” Unfortunately, making either choice can leave you wondering if you did the right thing.

The Story

I came home the month I graduated from college knowing exactly what I wanted to do next. Spending several months of my fourth year with mono had already introduced me to the freedom and responsibility of commitment-free days that post-college would be. Faced with an endless supply of such time after college, I planned to spend it in the most well-considered, just and helpful way that I could find. After much research, I found it: a three-year commitment to a Quaker peace organization that sends small teams of Canadians, Britons and Americans to places in the world with political violence that is caused by the foreign policies of participants’ home governments. The teams use non-violent direct action to “get in the way” and reduce that violence. Of the places where teams worked (Iraq, Palestine, Colombia, the U.S.-Mexico border), I wanted to go to Colombia. In high school I studied the devastation caused by Plan Colombia, including the U.S.’s support of para-military organizations there both through supplies and training. I wanted to join a small team of English-speaking people who lived in a mountain village, actively documenting the illegal activities of para-military organizations and standing in solidarity with the local community (which sometimes meant literally standing between them and the FARC’s guns). I felt called to join this cause, and take disciplined action to reduce the harm inflicted on other people by my government, because I thought it more just than gaining other experiences that could prepare me to change my government from within.

I was to leave for the initial training experience in Colombia the next month. Apparently I had not been very clear about my post-graduation intentions with my parents during the preceding months: my plans garnered equally emotional responses from each of my parents.

My dad was almost in tears, he was “so proud that [I] was called to take such risks for the sake of others.” He took time off seminary in the early 80s to go to Central America during the civil wars there—he has always supported and instilled in me a strong calling for social justice.

My mother was in tears: “You have too much intelligence, potential to make larger changes, how could you risk my life so young before realizing any of that?” Her response outraged me—the perfect excuse for someone of privilege to avoid taking real risks. I later realized that she was attempting to appeal to my rational brain, and that she was really devastated by the thought of losing me. When the rational approach failed, she tried again with a second response: that if I were to go she would have to literally sever her emotional ties to me in order to bear the fear of my death.

My mother’s fears were not unwarranted. Only a few months earlier, four of the CPT team members in Iraq had been held hostage for over 100 days. When their release came, it was only for three of them: the sole American in the group had been tortured and killed.

My Answer

Despite my dad’s support, and my principled calling to stop participating in a world that caused unnecessary violence, I didn’t go. The principled choice I thought I had made was overwhelmed by my mom’s second response—her deep fear of losing me. I didn’t understand exactly why, or how, this fit into my original decision, but I knew I would not go.

It was my mom’s reasoning in her first response—that someone with so much potential to appeal to traditional systems of power should use it as such, even at the cost of deeper commitments or callings—that I’ve heard echoing throughout the second stripe of this class, and that reminded me of this story. Is it justified to go work for a firm, in hopes of becoming a partner and fundamentally changing firm culture and practices? Should I write what I really think on my exam, or write what I think the professor wants to hear? If I know something is right or principled, is it ever justifiable to not to do it?

The answer is that it is complicated, and not about justification. In this case, my mother’s love swept in and made the decision for me; after that it didn’t matter if non-violent direct action or government participation was the more right thing to do. If I allowed myself to judge each of my own decisions by how closely they followed a set of principles, I would be paralyzed from ever actually doing anything. Instead, when I look back on this juncture in my life, I look to see what I can learn about myself. I realize that it was a moment when two of the most compelling forces in my life collided: a commitment to justice, and a love for the important people in my life. These forces are not necessarily always in competition in my life, but they are always present. My Colombia choice highlights them, and now I can see these two forces acting together in every choice I make, including my decision to leave my students in Texas and come to law school. Looking back on these decisions, not to decide if they were right or not, but rather to see what they say about me, affirms what is important to me. Knowing this, I am free to trust myself to make decisions about how to spend my time.

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay; it was highly relatable and also very relevant to many of the questions that we brought up in class. To me, your most central message was conveyed in the last paragraph, when you write that the different forces in your life are not always in competition but are always present. This is a strong revelation to come to. On one hand, it seems that you write with an implied sense of right and wrong and the conflict of different values (to go to Colombia or not? To listen to your father or mother? And more generally framed, which value wins out: a commitment to justice or the love for the people in your life?) In the end, you recognize that life is about balancing values that may clash or may complement each other. You had to sacrifice going to Colombia, but that does not mean that you have to ultimately sacrifice your commitment to justice to take the safe route. After all, there are many ways to achieve a single goal.

On that note, it may be helpful to elaborate more on how this particular decision has shaped who you are today, as a young person who is no longer fresh out of high school. And as a law student. You begin to address this inquiry but I’d love to hear what more you have to say about. You write that you feel conflicting forces acting in every choice you make. You also write that to judge your decisions by how they fit along a set of principles is not a way to live. I completely agree with you, but then am curious how you go about making such decision since your competing values are both constraining but undeniably important.

I am curious about how your reflection about your decision to not go to Colombia has changed over the years. It was obviously an important decision to make at the time, and one that easily could have changed the course of your life. As the years pass, however, are you able to look back with a fresh perspective and appreciate the choice you made? There is the romantic notion that young adulthood is a unique time of life when one is free to pursue more unconventional and risky goals before having to settle down. Is that how you felt about going to Colombia? Clearly your concern about social justice has not waned, but as you get older do you appreciate that there may be safer ways to make the kind of difference that you want to make?

I think this last question goes to the heart of what your mother said to you. Her reaction may have been somewhat frustrating to a young person who has been encouraged her whole life to follow her dreams, but was it the kind of cold rationality that you needed? And how does such a logic translate to your approach to law school and what to do with your degree after graduation? In essence, I think that your mother certainly was not stopping you from pursuing your dreams but she was just encouraging you to do it in other ways. Or, was her response a more instinctive one stemming from the fear of the danger you’d be in? In that way, I think that her response is both very rational and very emotional. She also implies that there are some risks worth taking and others that are not, but how do you decide?

Like I said, your essay really does bring up many interesting questions that are especially relevant to us as law students. With our degrees, so many doors open up but with that freedom there is also more responsibility to do what is “right.” Right, defined in many ways and most importantly, defined in a way that is justifiable personally. What I did here was try to put out questions that may be good for consideration before writing an edited paper. I’ll be back with more thoughts as they come. Have a great summer!

Jiadai _

It seems like you present the issue as your decision whether or not to go to Colombia, and that your mom's position won and your dad's lost, or that your love for your family won and your desire to do "the most well-considered, just and helpful" activity you could find lost. From what I know of your life experience, I don't think it was really like that. You may not have gone to rural Colombia, but you did go to rural Texas for Teach for America and taught kids that I'm sure desperately needed motivated role models like yourself. Hence, rather than a win/lose situation, it seems more like you had two parts of yourself which you had to balance, and going to Texas was a better balance than going to Colombia. Maybe you personally believe the situation in Colombia was more in need of your help than Texas, but I don't think you would have ended up where you were if there wasn't a need for your passion to help.

This reminds me of the class discussion about personalities; they are multiple and varied, and it's not so much about which decision is best for us, but which decisions are best for all the different parts of us. Like you said, it's complicated, and I think that's because our different personalities want different things. I know as I contemplate my young legal career I have numerous motivations pulling me in all different directions, but I think realizing what they are and that they can all be satisfied in one way or another is the major part of the battle. Based on your paper it sounds like you have a good handle on it as well, but I thought this line of thought is something you might like to incorporate as you edit.

-- RorySkaggs - 21 May 2010



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r4 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:37 - IanSullivan
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