What Is Your Life Motto?

I went to court today to do my duty – jury duty.  I didn’t much want to be a juror.  There’s no particular fascination there for me.  My Dad was a lawyer, as is one of my brothers, and I’ve seen enough of the law to have a pretty good sense of what it’s like and even have a pretty good sense of what court and trials are like.  They’re kind of going to the doctor’s office for a checkup – something that needs to be done, with the possibility for something interesting happening, but generally and overall, rather boring.

But I went.  You have to go.  You can postpone it a little bit, but your time comes in the end.  It always does.  And it wasn’t a bad time to get it over with, actually, so into the courthouse I went, with my computer and my book to wile away the time while I waited.  I was assigned to a particular case, with a specific judge, and after about 90 minutes our jury pool eventually went upstairs to meet the attorneys and the plaintiff and the defendant in the civil case that was before the court.  It was time for jury selection.

There were about 21 of us.  We had already filled out a questionnaire detailing our occupation and our possible relationships to anyone in the legal or medical or insurance professions, and where we lived, and how many kids we had, and all of that rigamarole.  The attorneys reviewed these while we waited outside and then we came back in the plaintiff’s attorney started explaining the bare outlines of the case and then told us he would be asking each of us a series of questions.  I was potential juror #2, so the second to go.

He began by asking the woman to my right about her ideas about the court system and about any history with car accidents and certain medical procedures and doctors, explaining to us that this was a case that was focused on a car accident and the injuries that resulted from that accident.  These were all fairly straightforward and I could tell that he would plan to ask me these same questions, so I began to formulate some answers in my head. (Honest answers – I wasn’t going to lie to get out of jury duty.)

But then he asked the first potential juror what she thought her strengths were and what she thought she could improve about herself.  Jesus, I thought, what the hell?  All of a sudden it seemed as if I was expected to write a college application in there – “What three words best describe you?  Tell us about a formative experience in your life that has changed how you view the world?”  She did a pretty good job with these, considering she seemed as surprised as I was with the questions and considering she clearly had no idea what to say to him.

And then he pulled out the clincher, his final question.  “What is your life motto?” he asked her.  She looked at him.  We all did.  “My life motto?” she said.  “Umm, I don’t know.  Live life to the fullest?”  It was plainly a question, not an answer, but he was more than satisfied.  He smiled in recognition at the words.

He turned to me and asked all of the same questions, which were easy enough and straightforward enough to answer.  At least until the strengths and weaknesses question, which just isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about.  Every year I do a summary of my work performance, like most people.  Part of this is by rote, to fill in the blanks of the “self-reflection” we are all expected to conduct, but some of it is real and valuable and engaged.  But job performance didn’t seem appropriate to the moment or what he might be looking for.  And it’s not that I’m not self-reflective or aware of my own faults – almost the opposite is true.  But this didn’t seem the right setting for those thoughts either.  So, I fudged my way through that part, not lying or anything but not saying anything particularly revealing or even “true.”

And when it came to the life motto part?  I almost just laughed. “I don’t have one,” I answered his question.  I said I try to teach my children to be kind, to not be cruel, to think of others.  A life motto?  No.  A philosophy?  Not exactly, but at least that’s closer.  I think I shrink away from the notion that “life” can be summed up in some type of motto, or that your philosophy can be, if you even have articulated one to yourself.  It just seems overly reductive to me, and I’m not willing to reduce the complexity of life to something that’s a credo that I can somehow cash in when called upon to do so.

I suppose, though, that maybe that’s what some people are looking for – simplicity, something they can carry around in their pocket.  But that’s just not something for me, not something I can buy into.

I found it depressing, just as I found most of the answers to this question clichéd.  He said back to me that perhaps my answer was “the golden rule.”  I smiled at him, noncommittal but not wanting to pursue it any further.  As he went along with the others, he continued this same line of questioning and some of the people came up with the usual fare.  Always he seemed pleased with the answers, and perhaps that had something to do with his overall strategy.  Or perhaps he really believed that our answer to the question told him something crucial about who we are and therefore how we might respond to the lawsuit that was taking place.

I personally find such a notion doubtful – it presumes we buy in to the supposition that one should have a life motto, as well as presumes that we have one.  Both of those seem wildly off the mark to me, at least in terms of a good portion of the general population.  Thirdly, it presumes we’d want to tell him.  We’re obligated to tell the truth, to not lie, but we’re not obligated to tell the whole truth about what we’re thinking.  (If so, I would have had to say what I found him to be supercilious and not very bright, that I think the law firm he is part of [the phone number for which is 454-2020, for those in the know!] is much more in it for the money than it is in it to represent those in need, or even that I found the opposing attorney to be strikingly dim, which has led me to a strikingly pallid view of lawyers, at least for today.)  In other words, all of his presumptions were silly, it seemed and seems to me.

Perhaps you’re wondering – wait, why did he want to know?  What did you find out about his strategy?  How did this question help him determine who should be on the jury and who should be dismissed, and therefore help rule in favor of his client?  I am sorry to report that I have no idea.

I was one of the ones dismissed.

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4 Responses

  1. Feel free to offer here your own life motto if you would like: I’d like to hear them!

    Some I heard today: treat others as you would like them to treat you, carpe diem, being content is the end of creativity, and work hard and play harder!

  2. Nice essay, Steve.

  3. Pallid view of lawyers…just for today. I am not buying it. I think the lawyer is traveling lost and looking for direction by asking the motto question. I agree a motto is not a philosophy, hence, my motto is: “Always store beer in dark place.”

  4. I think that’s a lawyer who has watched one too many Dr. Phil episodes. Life motto my ass. And if I had one, a) why would I tell you; and b) unless it’s something like “screw them before they screw you,” what’s my motto going to tell you about what I would be like on a jury.
    And people wonder why the court system is such a mess.

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