Compassion Arising in the Field of Battle – Aubrey Ford’s Words for the Journey October 2016

I entered the conference room filled with suited men primed for battle.  I had done this hundreds of times in my 35-year career as a trial lawyer, but the emotional and financial stakes were higher on this gloomy day in Washington.  I had filed a $24 million legal malpractice lawsuit against a prominent D.C. law firm that was being defended by the most prestigious litigation firm in America.  On this day, I was to take the deposition under oath of the young partner, Jim, who had committed a grievous legal error resulting in the dismissal of his client’s underlying lawsuit.

Jim entered the room and took his seat at the end of the long conference table. Four attorneys were there to defend him.  Jim and his lawyers were prepared for war, and who could blame them?  Depositions like this often degenerated into shouting matches between the attorneys with partisan accusations, obstruction and obfuscation.  I had done my part earlier in my career to contribute to that paradigm. The energy in the room was palpably hostile, and Jim had been prepared for a withering all day cross-examination. I was ready to do just that.

But today was to be different. I sat quietly and observed Jim. He looked awful – like a man overwhelmed by shame and guilt. He appeared nervous, terrified and defensive. Suddenly, a profound compassion arose within me from somewhere. How painful this must be for him.  How humiliating for a proud attorney to be attacked for incompetence.  How embarrassing to be responsible for a major lawsuit against his firm and law partners.

I certainly wanted to do an effective job in the deposition to procure the evidence I needed for the upcoming trial.  But I yearned for more than that.  I wanted to enable an experience that embodied a collective energy of compassion and mutual respect. When the deposition began, I found myself expressing :  “Jim, I know that this must be one of the most stressful days of your legal career.  I recognize that you had every intention of serving your client as professionally and effectively as you had hundreds of other times.  This has got to be deeply painful for you.  I want you to know that I have no intention today of making this experience any more stressful for you than is necessary.  I will strive to act accordingly.”

There was an immediate and dramatic transformation of the energy within that room I could never have anticipated.  All of the gladiator hostility deflated.  Jim, who was rigidly forward on the edge of his seat, visibly softened, leaned back in his chair, and appeared truly grateful.  The other lawyers seemed simultaneously shocked and relieved. The deposition proceeded all day without controversy, eruption, or conflict.  Everyone did their jobs, but did so with mutual respect and appreciation for the others’ duties.  After the deposition ended, while the lawyers were milling about, Jim came up to me and said:  “Aubrey, perhaps after all this over, we can have a beer and talk about this.” 

I couldn’t help but wonder how the experience might impact Jim’s professional relationships in the future – or those of the other lawyers present. I know that the incident was deeply moving for me, a visceral experience of the transformative capacity of authentic empathy. I am convinced that if I had uttered the same words in a manipulative, strategic attempt to gain advantage, the result would have been different.  But I felt genuinely connected to Jim’s pain and embarrassment and sincerely meant what I said to him. That made all the difference.

Twenty years ago, I don’t believe I would have recognized Jim’s suffering, desperate as I was to fulfill my own needs. Even if I had, I don’t believe I would have generated the courage to acknowledge it openly in that adversarial setting. This work that we are doing together through Chrysalis, other sources of guidance and within ourselves often manifests unexpectedly. This journey towards awakening requires intention, attention and devoted practice. Often I wonder if I am making any progress on that path as habitual patterns, reactivity, and judgment persist. But occasionally an awareness or experience arises from which it is evident to me that there is a bit more immersion of heart into whatever I am doing. That is inspiration enough.

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Questions for Reflection :

  • Can you identify recent experiences or insights that provide you inspiration for your personal journey ?
  • In what ways does Chrysalis or similar spiritual communities support your practice and personal journey ? 

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