July 28, 2008
Keeping Things in Perspective
Human beings are so good at losing perspective when they hit obstacles. Whether the obstacle is academic, medical, financial, professional, personal or of some other variety, humans tend to turn molehills into mountains, to worry themselves into insomnia or ulcers, and to despair quickly.
We do so because 1) we tend to focus on ourselves in times of disappointment or crisis and 2) we tend to expect perfection. These two aspects of human nature make it very natural for us to get down in the dumps instead of weighing our situations against a broader spectrum of life and experience.
Why am I thinking about this subject? Well, I have had several encounters that have reminded me of these human frailities: two encounters with students; two encounters with bar studiers; and one memory of my own law school experience.
I overheard a bar studier moaning and groaning about how tired she was of studying, how she was suffering with some relatively minor physical ailments, and how as a result she was at a disadvantage compared to everyone else. She was focusing on her little world and feeling sorry for herself. And she was oblivious to any problems of the other bar studiers to whom she was telling her tale of woe.
A few minutes later, I saw our blind graduate studying for the bar exam. Not only is he having to do all of the reading in braille, he also has to take the bar is one six-hour and two twelve-hour sessions because the bar examiners have given him double time but not additional days. This bar studier kept on persevering and working hard to succeed even though the bar examiners decision on his long days was a disappointment. If the first bar studier had thought about her colleague, she would have realized that she had lost her perspective.
In a previous post, I talked about our summer entry program and grading. This past week, I had appointments with all of the students about their first exams. Several were shocked about their grades. Most of them swallowed hard and then began to ask questions on how to improve. They quickly put aside their disappointment and decided not to let it overwhelm them.
However, several lost their perspectives quickly. One student even talked about quitting the program. On reconsidering after much encouragement on my part, the student decided to wait until the end of the four weeks to quit if the grade had not gone up to a perfect "A" by then. Only perfection was acceptable to the student, so one poor showing worth 15% of the grade was overwhelming. Many of our law students are perfectionists, I find, so it is a struggle for them to step back and gain the skill of doing their best each day instead of being perfect.
When I was a 1L in law school, I would at times get overwhelmed by the whole process. As a non-traditional student who had always been competent in school and at work, I felt suddenly incompetent. I had to learn patience with myself as I learned new legal reasoning skills.
I also had to regain perspective. The best perspective "medicine" for me was volunteering with the local housing partnership group while I was in law school. We would go out at least once a week to do repairs on houses owned by low-income families. As I repaired a front porch that was so rotted that the elderly owner was trapped in her home, I realized that law school was not so bad. As I helped a team install indoor plumbing for a family that only had an outside latrine, I realized how privileged I was to be in law school.
There is nothing like a dose of the "real world" to bring back one's perspective. We need to help our law students remember that they have worth beyond grades and that they still have lives outside of law school. When they lose perspective, we can help them get it back. (Amy Jarmon)
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