Wednesday, February 14, 2018
From the Field is a recurring column written by current clinical students where they share their perspectives on their own experiences with clinical education. This post is from Kate Joohyun Lee, a current 2L at Columbia Law School. Kate was a student in Columbia's mediation clinic and is now taking the Advanced Mediation Clinic.
It rains a lot in Indonesia; 4 pm on most days, and it’s usually a downpour. Water skips down the windows, trees dance in the wind, and my dog has tracked mud onto the porch again. I’ve always loved rain. I’ve always loved watching the water come from nowhere and wash things clean. And at the end of it all, the world smells brand new.
Meeting another human being is like looking out the window of your car on a rainy day and noticing the car next to you. You see the shape and perhaps the color of the car, but the details are always changing as you or the other car zooms by. Sometimes you and an unwitting neighbor stop at a red light together, and only then can you sort of see that the paint job is scratched, the side mirror is a bit bent, and is that a dog in the back seat? A university sticker on the back window—a proud mom.
That’s how I felt whenever I mediated. The people sitting at the table and I had stopped at a red light together. We were discussing the effects of human flaws, things that had broken down through a lack of communication, generational poverty, racism, loneliness, anxiety…the list goes on. It’s one thing to conceptually know that people fall through the cracks. It’s another thing to meet them, face-to-face, to shake their cold hands or to offer words of encouragement that hits them in a way you never expected. To find yourself at the copy machine on the third floor of Brooklyn Housing Court, fielding questions from desperate strangers about how to file a complaint. To mediate mundane problems like leaks in the roof and abandoned cars caused by people who were just being human.
Something beautiful about meeting people in their worst place is that a lot of masks come off. In life outside of the mediation room, peaks are endlessly advertised; glimpses of the valleys are rare. But in the mediation room, you’re in the valley with them. This isn’t about victories, it’s about patching up failures and navigating the broken systems that have brought the parties to court.
It would be too simple and naïve of me to say, “this clinic changed me because I saw that so many people found life difficult.” Because I saw in myself flaws and failings, too. I’ve found myself in the valleys. I think of my snap judgments, my impatient moments, my misguided emotions. I think of the many times I assumed people were just rude or unkind, instead of tired, anxious, or lonely. I’ve always hoped that people wouldn’t look at my worst 1% and judge the rest—but I failed to extend that same grace to other people.
I walked into this clinic hoping to come out of it comfortable with conflict. But more than being comfortable with conflict, I am now a bit more comfortable dwelling in the valleys with people. I am a bit more comfortable with being human. A bit more comfortable with sleepless nights, with angry and bitter mornings. With failings and shortcomings and chips on my shoulder and on my nails.
My reconciliation with the broken parts of life have made the beautiful parts of life shine brighter, and now the broken parts hurt less. In becoming comfortable with conflict, strangely, I have found peace.