Dear Pinky and Spike:
So much to learn.
Since writing the last letter about the personal growth (or decline) that takes place during divorce, I’ve repeatedly challenged my motive for selecting this topic. Divorce lawyers hold a particularly influential position in the lives of their clients during a period of extreme psychological vulnerability. People going through a divorce feel vulnerable; that’s one of the reasons they hire lawyers. Because of the professional role in their client’s life, the lawyer enjoys a degree of power over the client. Ethically, the lawyer’s exercise of this power should be conscious, deliberate and connected to the task they’ve been engaged to perform.
For example, it is not uncommon for divorce lawyers to use the power differential to indoctrinate their clients with one or more of their own beliefs. To some extent this is inevitable — and in some instances it’s execrable. I’ve heard therapists describe a situation in which the divorce lawyer has “joined the client’s family” and is polluting the client’s family system with his or her own family-of-origin issues. This kind of representation is as toxic as you’d expect it to be. It is also easy to do — and while the family still has assets, it is lucrative.
As a matter of policy, I believe a divorce lawyer should be extremely careful to avoid affecting a client’s beliefs; however, conventional practice often requires the lawyer to inculcate the client with those personal beliefs and values because they drive that lawyer’s practice. If a client presents an attorney with a problem for which there appears to be a direct legal solution, the lawyer will describe how the solution can be implemented. If the client resists, the lawyer is likely to seek the cause of the resistance and overcome it.
The lawyer might say something like, “You aren’t going to let him/her continue to push you around like this, are you? Don’t you think it’s time to draw the line and stand up for yourself?” Those sentences are loaded with hidden assumptions and values. The expressions may be trite and clichéd, but they are powerful and may affect the client’s moral reasoning (or any other kind of reasoning).
My strong disapproval of many aspects of conventional law practice is based on a number of personal values that I may be imposing on clients with whom I share my views. I justify that activity by being deliberate in the way I deliver my opinion and by explaining the facts and values on which it is based. More important is the design and use of a consultation process, which precludes me from having an economic interest in the decisions they make.
That’s enough in the way of confession. As I said in the preceding letter, I would like to encourage anyone going through divorce to “expand” in whatever ways they think might make them become more like the person they’ve always wanted to be. During the last couple of years I’ve heard many references to the Aristotelian notion of the good life, which is described with the verb “to flourish.” I would be astonished if this isn’t what we all want for ourselves and for everyone we care about. (I strongly suspect that we would all benefit if the people we didn’t care about also “flourished,” but I wouldn’t be astonished to learn that this opinion was not universally held.) To flourish implies that some sort of “expansion” can or should take place. I don’t presume to know how to help others flourish, but I do know how hard it is to effect a change of mind or discover and appreciate a concept inconsistent with long-held views.
In this, the previous and the next letter I describe how the Internet has provided a variety of ways we can expose ourselves to content that can gently stretch both what we think and the way we think. It’s a gentle stretch. Listening to these programs won’t change you, but they might help you decide if and how you might want to change in the future.
Back to Melvyn Bragg and his BBC podcast, In Our Time (IOT). I described the basic mechanics of the program in the last letter. If nothing else, IOT will remind or acquaint you with what an intelligent conversation sounds like. The participants abide by the following rules: (1) They are sincere, and they answer Bragg’s questions with what they believe to be the “truth.” (2) They are concise. (3) Their comments are relevant to the topic raised by the question. Bragg maintains enough control to ensure the second and third conditions are met. Detectable sincerity is rare in American media; on IOT, however, I can’t recall a program where it was noticeably absent, and if it were I’m sure Bragg wouldn’t invite the guest to participate in another program.
There is an archive of about 440 programs divided into five categories. I want to give you a sample of the kinds of topics IOT explores, so I used a random number generator to select three episodes from each category with the following results (category, number of episodes and random sample of three program titles, by program number):
» History — 132 episodes: #63 The Needham Question, #72 The Field of the Cloth of Gold and #104 The Third Crusade
» Philosophy — 62 episodes: #31 The Oath, #39 Rhetoric and #30 Friendship
» Culture — 124 episodes: #105 Reading, #80 Marriage and #65 The Norse Gods
» Science — 152 episodes: #152 Science in the 20th Century, #41 Plate Tectonics and #91 Dreams
» Religion — 40 episodes: #11 St. Paul, #24 Zoroastrianism and #29 The Apocalypse
Listening to programs in which you have an interest might inspire your mind to pursue related subjects. This is a natural way to decide how to invest one’s time, but it also involves the risk that what’s new will be avoided in favor of topics likely to confirm, reify or bolster previously held ideas. In this and in many other applications, a random number generator is a good tool for gently sidestepping our Old Stuff on the path to discovering the new. Where the selection is being made from a numbered list, you insert the range of the list (e.g., for History it was 1 to 132) and the number of random integers you want generated. Click and the random numbers appear. In our time, it’s a more seemly way to make random selections than repeated flips of a coin or roll of the dice.
• • •
Virginia Campbell’s Brain Science Podcast will be the subject of the next letter. Listen to any episode for 10 seconds and you will have taken a test of your bias toward the American South. “Ginger” Campbell has — to my ear — a strong Southern accent. I confess that it immediately put me on guard with respect to the reliability of her show’s content, even though I knew she was an emergency room physician with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. For those with a reaction similar to mine, you can listen for another 10 minutes and discover how your bias distorted information and led to a fallacious opinion. In other words, this is an opportunity to observe ourselves being wrong because of old ideas, and we can have this experience at no risk, no humiliation and no cost of any kind.
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.