NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Justice” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
In the late 1950s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg observed that as we mature, we move progressively through three basic levels of moral development. At the pre-conventional levels, our sense of justice is self-centered, and we are concerned mainly with satisfying our own needs and avoiding punishment; what we want, and what we can get away with, is “fair.” Most of us move on to the conventional levels, where our sense of justice is based mainly on societal expectations, and we are guided in our moral decisions by the rules, customs, and laws of our social groups. At the post-conventional levels, our sense of justice is principled, marked by a growing sense that our own perspective may take precedence over society’s; rules, customs, and laws can be questioned, and at times broken, in favor of a greater good.
We move from one level to the next when we find that the governing principles of our current stage are insufficient guides. The succeeding stage provides a new, and necessary, perspective.
My own guiding principles were most challenged during the aftermath of a successful medical malpractice trial 15 years ago.
The tale began with a brush with death due to medical errors, continued with bringing the surgeon to justice, and took a bizarre turn when I discovered that the attorneys who won my case had absconded with the jury’s award.
I realized something was seriously amiss only after excuses for delays in payment moved from credible to incredible. As my suspicions grew, I became a roiling mass of hope, rage, and despair. Walking from the commuter train to my job and back, I screamed obscenities in my mind. I frightened my girlfriend with fantasies of hurting the attorneys in any way I could. I talked to friends about hiring a leg breaker. And I chastised myself repeatedly for handing the case over to thieves.
The tipping point was a conversation with the referring attorney, who told me that neither he nor the expert witnesses who had testified on my behalf had been paid yet. “The big question,” he said, “is why? Why would they throw away their expert witnesses? Why would they give up a stream of cases I’ve passed on to them? To me this makes sense only if they don’t plan to be lawyers anymore. I think they’re going to skip.”
Within minutes of hanging up the phone I decided to go to New York and demand my money. I spent the remainder of the morning writing a detailed complaint and made copies to send to the Manhattan D.A., the New York State Bar Association, and the federal, state, and city tax agencies. I made duplicates of each and asked my girlfriend to mail them if she didn’t hear from me within the next two days. It was a melodramatic gesture, I knew, but at the time melodrama didn’t seem entirely out of place.
I quickly packed a bag and then called my friend Bill, with whom I usually stayed when I came to New York. “I intend to come back with my money or start a shit storm raining down on them,” I told him.
With the chilling sense that I was about to take a step after which there would be no turning back, I called their firm. The receptionist answered.
“This is David Bookbinder,” I said.
“Oh, hello, Mr. Bookbinder, how are you? What can I do for you?”
“You can tell your bosses that I’m coming to meet with them tomorrow morning at 10:00 am.”
“Um… Do you want to talk to them?”
“No. Just give them that message. And tell them that if they don’t make this meeting, they’ll be hearing from people they want to hear from even less than me.”
She was silent for a moment, apparently writing down my message. “Less than you… Okay, sir. So, tomorrow at 10:00 am?”
“Yeah. Just give them that message.”
I grabbed my backpack and the briefcase full of complaints, stepped out the door, then returned for a copy of Homer’s Odyssey and a pocket knife I’d made years before. On the commuter train to Boston, I turned to the section where Odysseus arrives home after his long journey, only to find that barbarians have squandered his fortune.
I had a regularly scheduled appointment with my therapist, Jim Grant, that afternoon, and I kept it. Jim conducts his sessions in an office decorated with Asian art and religious artifacts, as well as his own photographs, which strongly resemble oriental paintings themselves. The meditative setting was in strong contrast to the rage boiling inside me.
When we started our session, Jim noticed my backpack and gave it a quizzical nod. “I’m catching the bus to New York as soon as I leave here,” I said. I filled him in on the events of the past week and told him what I planned to do when I got there. “My girlfriend thinks I’m crazy, but I feel like I need to do this. What do you think?”
Jim leaned back in his big, black leather chair and stroked his goatee. “I’m not sure I would go,” he said. “You don’t know what they might do – it could be explosive.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” I said. “What are they going to do, shoot me? Hire a hit man? Too many people already know about this.” My heart, despite my bravado, was pounding. I took a breath to calm down. I recalled how helpful the collection of totems I had taken to my trial had been. “I could use another set tomorrow,” I said, “but there’s no time to pull that together.” I took my homemade knife out of my pocket and handed it to him. “I did bring this, though, for luck.”
Jim ran his fingers along the brass and ironwood exterior, then opened the knife and tested the edge on his fingertip before he passed it back to me. “It’s a beautiful piece of work,” he said.
“Wait a minute.” Jim reached over to a small altar near his desk. “I have something for you.” He picked up a short silver dagger with a fluted, three-sided blade. “It’s called a phurba,” he said. “It’s one of the symbolic armaments Tibetan Buddhists use to deal with illusion.” He handed it to me and I felt its heft. “It’s a good image for you – the warrior with his sword of justice.”
“I don’t know if it’s justice I’m after,” I said. “What I feel is revenge. Those bastards tried to take my future. Whether they pay me or not, I’m going to take theirs. I’m an Old Testament Jew. We don’t believe in turning the other cheek.”
This was not the first time Jim and I had discussed revenge. “That’s why I’m giving you the phurba,” he said now. “It’s the Dagger of Emptiness. You don’t use it to attack your enemy. You use it to kill your own illusions.” He waved a hand in front of his eyes. “It’s illusions that keep you feeling like a victim. The hero cuts away illusions – attachment, avoidance, indifference – until all that’s left is the truth.”
I shifted in my seat. “But I am a victim, Jim,” I said. “That’s the phrase, isn’t it? ‘A crime victim.’ These are bad guys. They hurt me, and they’re probably hurting other clients even as we speak. What’s wrong with vengeance if it stops the bad guys?”
“I might feel the same way,” Jim said. “Who wouldn’t? But vengeance doesn’t strengthen, it weakens. It comes from the rage of helplessness.”
I looked at the phurba and fingered its soft, dulled edges. “I’ve been re-reading the Odyssey, the last third. Odysseus is consumed with rage, and he acts on it with the blessing of the gods – slays the suitors, rivers of blood, and all that. Isn’t he the archetypal hero?”
Jim shook his head. “Odysseus isn’t the best model for what has to happen here. You don’t have to slay the suitors who’ve taken over your kingdom. You have to slay the suitors within.”
He told me a story of a young samurai whose master was killed by a hired assassin. The samurai dedicated his life to tracking down the assassin and bringing him to justice. For years the samurai hunted his master’s murderer, finally cornering him in an alley halfway around the world. The samurai drew his sword and prepared to take his enemy’s head, but at that moment the killer spat in his face. The samurai paused for a moment, then he sheathed his sword. The assassin, shocked, said, “I murdered your master. I admit that now. Why did you not slay me?” The samurai replied, “For all these years I have been pursuing justice. But when you spat at me, I became enraged. At that moment I was no longer a samurai upholding justice. I was just an angry man with a sword.”
“The compassionate warrior doesn’t act out of vengeance,” Jim said. “He sees his enemy as a diminished, tragic figure. You could say that these guys are the victors because they seem to be getting away with robbery. But you can’t be a person with no conscience and also experience everything that makes life worth living. The sociopath is not a whole human being, and that’s pitiable.”
He took the phurba from me and stabbed toward his chest. “You can use this to help you direct your rage not at your enemies but at the forces in you that keep you from experiencing your true nature. You can stab your sense of victimization.” He handed the phurba back to me. “Use it before you go in to talk to them tomorrow.”
I put it in my pocket. “Okay,” I said. “I think I know what you mean.”
“I know you do.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “You may get your money and you may not, though I hope you do. The bad guys may be punished and they may not, though I hope they are. But whatever happens, if you keep on this path, you’ll gain something that’s worth a thousand times the money.”
I looked at him skeptically. “What’s that?”
“You’ll throw off the chains of your victimhood. And nobody can take that away.”
I took the bus to New York and, Jim’s opinions about Odysseus notwithstanding, completed my re-reading of the last chapters of the Odyssey on the way. I spent the night at Bill’s place, then went to the attorneys’ offices to confront them the following morning. In the bathroom of a diner I stopped in for breakfast, I used the phurba as Jim had instructed. But on the way out, I also patted the pocket where my own knife lay, with its blade sharp enough to split a hair.
In a tense meeting, in which knife and phurba, Odysseus and samurai, were intermingled, I made my demands and stated my intentions. For most of the meeting I was firm in my resolve. Toward the end of the hour, though, I was won over by tearful pleading by my lawyer’s partner not to “ruin our lives,” a credible admission that the IRS had frozen their escrow account, and a good-faith offer of $10,000 on the spot with more to come each week until the end of the month, when they assured me I would be “made whole.”
“I am whole,” I said. “You’re the ones who are broken.” But I took the check.
I rode the bus back to Boston that afternoon feeling confused and uncertain, Jim’s samurai tugging at one side, Odysseus on the other. A few days later I received another check for $5,000. I cashed it, but by then the samurai was gaining ground and I felt soiled.
The end of the month came and went, with more pleas and more promises. I contacted a local attorney, who stumbled on another client whose funds had been “delayed,” confirming my suspicions that I was not unique.
Shortly thereafter, the balance shifted in favor of the samurai. I mailed the complaint letters to the D.A. and the New York State Bar Association and let the judicial system begin its process. As I dropped the envelopes into the mailbox, a veil of confusion lifted and relief followed.
By the time I testified before the grand jury a year later, the samurai and Odysseus had reached détente. The following year, when I read a statement at the attorneys’ sentencing hearing, my internal conflicts were resolved, and my desire was no longer to see them punished, but only for them to be separated from the people they would otherwise continue to harm. On that day, as I looked at these formerly high-flying men standing before the judge in their orange jump suits, I felt, unbidden, the faintest glimmerings of pity and the barest touch of compassion.
The legal term my attorneys had used, “made whole,” means “to pay or award damages sufficient to put the party who was damaged back into the position he/she would have been without the fault of another.” It seemed apt in more than its literal sense. In the ensuing weeks, I felt a much larger sense of wholeness, of no longer being the victim of the surgeon, the attorneys, or anyone else.
I moved on, changed in ways that, so far, nothing since has been able to reverse.