Some months ago a colleague of mine whom I am fortunate also to call my friend and who is a skilled attorney-at-law of experience and accomplishment far surpassing my own said something to me over dinner that left me with an unsettling combination of feelings. A few years ago his very bright young son, just beginning his promising studies at a fine university, had been killed in an accident. On this evening some months ago over dinner my friend told me how the priests from his church had come to his home the morning of his son’s death as soon as they had learned the news. My friend was very wise about the needs and limitations of such a moment, as were his priests: there was nothing they could really do about so unimaginable a loss, he said, except to sit with him, and so they did. As he was telling me this, I was touched that he had volunteered to speak to me about it, moved by the decency of his priests, and yet also something else. Briefly something more sinister and also shameful darkened my heart.
For as long as I have reflected upon it, I have thought that the loss of one’s child must be the worst death any one of us could know. I myself have known a number of other deaths, but never that one, and I almost certainly never shall, as I have never married and have no intention to. I shall not compare any grief I have known to that. But what of the response? What of how naturally my friend’s priests came to him? Therein lies the selfish plea I quietly and briefly heard within myself over dinner that evening months ago. When I suffered whatever of my own losses, some of which I have written about in these journals and all of which were known to those who knew me in face-to-face life, where was my parish priest? My neighbor? Kinfolk or friends? And what is more important: is there any way to talk of one’s self-pity without exhibiting the very evil that is built into the term? To pity is to feel sorrow for another’s pain. It comes from ancient words meaning duty, loyalty, and piety. What then is self-pity, other than duty, loyalty, and piety to oneself? It is not merely to feel sorrow: it is to feel sorrow for oneself for, wretchedly redundant enough, one’s own sorrow. That is a most abysmal kind of sadness.
Those of us who practice law will (or should) know that we are bound by a duty of care, and those more learned in the professional rules will also understand that the duty of care consists of the exercises of competence and diligence for those whom one is loyal to (and all practitioners will surely also understand that loyalty is also one of of our fiduciary duties). Let us go beyond the legal meanings for a moment, though, and recall too that care comes from ancient words meaning to lament or to cry out: as one would over a burden one is responsible for. This sense of the burden of care is not a purely objective one. That is, while one might indeed feel weighed down by an obligation imposed purely from without, one's lamentation comes from within: whether one's motives in exercising care, then, are entirely selfish or whether they are possessed of charity (a word, odd enough, not related to care), one has subjective motives for the exercise of care at the same time that one has objective duties in it. In a perfect advocate, who cares for his clients, or in a perfect friend, who cares for his brethren, external rules would be unnecessary: the charity within his heart would be sufficient. Most of us are probably able to advocate, which is to say care, in that kind of heartfelt way to one degree or another, but the commandments—the commandments of a profession or those of ordinary righteousness— which are written in our hearts, are also written in the Rules of Professional Conduct or on tablets of stone, and such inscriptions are merciful to our corrupt predilections. We know what we must do, often we fail, and, if we are sufficiently wise, we hope that Providence (or the mercy of friends and the earthly bodies that govern us) will take up the slack for our inevitable shortcomings.
Our shortcomings themselves will inevitably fall within those two elements of care: competence and diligence. Competence can objectively enough be measured—and so also then can incompetence, more or less—but it is among the mysteries of the human psyche to determine how and why a man falls short or to the contrary does as he must in his diligence. If a man does not work hard, perhaps he is lazy or malicious, but perhaps too he is burdened by evils not entirely or not at all within his dominion—maybe he is crippled by the lingering pain of trauma or by some wretchedness in his contemporary circumstances or let your imagination hypothesize by whatever all else.
Those who have been with Lasseter's Lost Reef from its beginning some three years ago (as well as any who have caught up by reading the old essays) will know that the First Expedition began when I was living in a temporary apartment one month after a fire had made my house uninhabitable. It will also be known to the perspicacious reader that I took the occasion of beginning Lasseter's Lost Reef to examine a good many of life's other travails. Recall—perhaps you will from my prior essays—the death of my dear mother now some eight years ago or the death of my beloved Kitty one year-and-a-half ago or indeed one or two other seminal and corrupt matters that studious readers will know without further description. What place in all the world, O Achates, as I once quoted a certain namesake, what region of the earth knows not our travails? Are our earthly misfortunes blessings of Providence for our chastisement or instruction? are they heroic sufferings for the comradeship of our yokefellows in this transient life? or are they merely the inexplicable pains of a short existence that one makes sense of as one is able and as one will for one's own consolation in its vanity but no more?
In negotiating their own trials in the grievously underrated film Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, Marlboro (played by Don Johnson) explained the management of life to his friend Harley (played by Mickey Rourke) with several quaint aphorisms that all began, "My old man used to tell me before he left this shitty world …." Whatever the subsequent advice, the predicating statement is unassailable. At some stage of the proceedings in life one can no longer lament the injustice nor the lack of sympathy in this world nor expect a compassionate outcome or reward for whatever one has been through, and one ought also to ask how competent one has been oneself in managing these cares, and indeed too how diligent. So you have known misfortune. Others have known far worse. What region of the earth, O Harley, …?
This nevertheless leaves us with unanswerable sorrow, a pervasive and inescapable condition of this life. Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? as the King James Version elegantly puts it (Job 38:2—or, if you prefer, τίς οὗτος ὁ κρύπτων με βουλήν συνέχων δὲ ῥήματα ἐν καρδίᾳ ἐμὲ δὲ οἴεται κρύπτειν, as it is in the Septuagint: also elegant, and do the math, but they are not vastly different). I seem to recall from my youth an interview with William Safire on the Book of Job where he said that the most conspicuous detail of the story was the disappearance of Satan after the first two chapters, but in my young adulthood I came to disagree with this. I found two far worse and subtly far more conspicuous absences in Job: the absence of those slain in Satan's deal and the absence of any mention of Job's sorrow over their deaths. Yes, in the end Job was restored many times over in his material wealth, and he was given more children in some sort of parity, it seems, with his loss—and the Septuagint even notes in particular that Job shall be resurrected unto eternal life—but those who were slain in Satan's wager with God, including Job's beloved children, were still dead, and for all the many remaining years of that holy man's life there is no mention in the text of his lingering sorrow for so grievous a loss. Surely St. Job, as pious as indeed he was, must have felt that loss immensely.
A couple of months after my beloved Kitty died, my friend whom I mentioned at the beginning of this essay had a chance amidst our professional dealings to catch up with me a bit in the Old Courthouse here in Cuyahoga County. (He and I had had to attend a hearing together, and afterwards we decided to sit in the hall of that gorgeous courthouse for a moment and talk about things.) As we visited and discussed various matters, he told me that I should check my mail for a special notice. He had gone, he then told me, to his fellow partners at the law firm where he worked and, knowing of the loss of my beloved cat, had convinced the firm to make a charitable donation in my cat's name. Learning of this gift brought to my memory then, as it does now, the recollection of how he had taken time to speak with me when Kitty had been ill and how he had told me he would pray for her recovery. I said to him then in the Courthouse with a touch of embarrassment that I should scarcely elevate my loss to any other—and I am quite sure that he understood the meaning of my remark—but without hesitation and with a warmth that rarely consecrates the lawyerly discourse of our halls of justice he shrugged this aside and assured me that my love of my cat and my grief over having lost her was a dear thing.
In the duty of care that a pious man owes to any other, competence is, as we have noted, a matter more or less objectively measurable: one has certain gifts, one learns certain things in this life, and the fortunes of life also mysteriously bestow further gifts upon a person. Diligence, on the other hand … well one may have a sense of what one ought to do or even a sense of what one was meant to do, but actually doing it presents obstacles that are more inscrutable or mysterious to the rational mind. Why would one group of persons who professed love to a man take the time to sit with him in his grief while another group professing likewise would do nothing or even do things quite certain to cause the man further grief? Who knows. We are unprofitable servants. Sometimes we do our duty, and usually we do far less, and who will punish us? We have the commandments, and yet our earthly masters are likely just as unprofitable as we are. Neither the punishment nor the reward comes before we leave this shitty world. We suffer loss as we must, scarcely a word is written of it, and we simply and indeed humbly hope the Lord will grant us, as He has promised Job, peace and eternal life (and let us say eternal life with all whom we have loved) in the age to come.
Those who are especially attentive may note that we lawyers also have a duty of confidentiality, and I have tried in this non-lawyerly writing to observe this: I asked my friend's permission before writing this, and I am grateful to him both for giving me his blessing for this essay and for having been a good friend.