Friday, September 4, 2015

How My Bathroom Renovation is Making Me into a Better Lawyer

We are on week six of a bathroom remodel that has all six in our household sharing a half-bath...while potty-training our two year old. Currently, there is no end in sight.

I know. First world problems. But still quite tiring.

The hold up is the tile. We are renovating a 1930’s bathroom, down to the studs, and building it back up again to look just like it did in the first place...minus the cracked tile, the toilet that runs all day, and the caking grout.

As it turns out, the jadeite green tile is pretty hard to find. It’s not as popular as it once was and after scouring home renovation blogs for months, I was able to find two places that still sell it after all these years: the local company that makes it, and the other company that buys it from the local company and sells it for twice as much online. It seemed so perfect! It was a home renovation miracle. How fantastic to find that I live within 30 miles of the source. Except that it hasn’t been fantastic.

What I’ve learned, is that making tile does not work like clockwork. Now on our fifth delay, we are still waiting for the last few boxes of green tile so that our (very patient) contractor can get started on this final phase. What I have also learned is that if you are the only source of said tile, you have no reason to hurry, or make things better, or apologize, or accommodate your customer’s suggested discount. You are not particularly worried about a bad Yelp review.

Where else is your customer going to go?

The answer is nowhere.  

As I was driving home from work last week, mulling over this frustrating situation, it occurred to me that it is not the inconvenience of being down to one bathroom that has been bothering me. The deeper issue is that I am not used to being without recourse.

Now that seemed worthy of reflection.

I am not accustomed to being powerless. If you inconvenience me, I can usually find a way to remedy the situation. And if not, I can find a subtle way to make you pay. Or apologize. Or wish you had acted differently. I’m a lawyer, after all. Now, I’m not a mean person, so usually I do so with a pleasant disposition, but we both leave knowing who’s boss. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but I don’t think I’m alone, particularly within our profession.

Over the past several years I have been increasingly interested in the connections between spiritual and professional formation. Spiritual formation includes the well-known practices of prayer and meditation, fasting, and the like, but there are also small, seemingly insignificant practices that help us to address larger issues in our lives. For example, in order to address impatience, one might seek out the longest line in the grocery store or choose to drive in the slow lane on the freeway. These practices help one to be more mindful of one’s shortcomings and seek out opportunities to practice the more virtuous response.

I think of them as little “catches’ to keep us from living life on auto-pilot.

This idea has lead me to think in new ways about my own professional formation. Just as I am asking my students to be intentional about who they are becoming in the legal profession, I want to be careful to ask the same of myself. I don’t know that I’m inspired enough to go seeking out inconvenience or powerlessness. I certainly will be taking a break before we remodel any other room in our house. But I do think there is value in leaning into these experiences as they arise and acknowledging them as professionally formative opportunities.

As I’ve reframed my own experience in this way, I’ve been surprised by the way that it has refreshed and awakened my empathy for my clients. Though I am fully aware that our struggles are in no way the same, I have found myself more attuned to their feelings of powerlessness and more patient with the ways that they respond to their particular stressors. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself asking different kinds of questions and communicating in new, hope-infused ways. As I enter my twelfth year of teaching in my legal aid clinic, this kind of recharged empathy is a gift.

Not a bad tradeoff for a box of green tile.

Religion, Teaching and Pedagogy | Permalink


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