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From disillusionment to satisfaction

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

John Van de Kamp
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

In my airplane reading, I read an article by David McCullough that has been rolling around in my mind for some time. In 1986 he wrote an article for the New York Times magazine — now titled “Long Distance Vision” and found in his 1992 compendium of articles called “Brave Companions.”

In it he wrote of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham. All were aviation pioneers — “lifted out of themselves by the very art of flight by becoming part of something infinitely larger than themselves.” Like many lawyers, they loved the action. Their era ended with the advent of World War II and, for at least three of them, pronounced disillusionment.

Lindbergh, McCullough wrote, came to see that the evil was not in technology itself, but how technical ingenuity can distance us from our better moral nature, our sense of personal accountability. That was underscored by Lindbergh’s account of a bombing raid over Japanese-occupied Rabaul in New Guinea in World War II. Lindbergh wrote, “I saw it (the bomb be released) clearly for a moment as I climbed and within seconds a pinwheel pall of smoke appeared behind me . . . a puff so small and far away that I could not connect it to the button on my stick, or realize the writhing hell it covered on the ground.”

Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the children’s classic The Little Prince, fought the Luftwaffe in World War II. “What frightens me more than the war is the world of tomorrow,” he wrote his mother. In The Little Prince, he wrote of the fox telling the little prince what really matters in life by reminding him of the flower, the single rose he had cared for at home on his own small planet. “‘Men have forgotten the truth,’ says the fox. ‘But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.’” Saint-Exupéry was lost in a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944.

Earhart was lost in the Pacific near the Marianas the same year the Luftwaffe practiced mass bombing on the Spanish city of Guernica. What her thoughts were at that time are about as clear as the mystery of her disappearance.

Markham, of Kenya, was the first woman to fly the Atlantic from east to west and wrote West with the Night. She had taken up aviation for a living in taking supplies and passengers to the distant reaches of Kenya, Sudan, Tanganyika and Rhodesia. By the end of the war, she had given up flying. She wrote, “After this great era of great pilots is gone . . . it will be found . . . that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board.” In Africa, where she died, she was drawn to the Masai. “Africa is less a wilderness than a repository of primary and fundamental values.”

Lindbergh, in a speech in 1972, said “if our follies permit it to advance, I feel sure we will realize that progress can be measured only by the quality of life — all life, not human life alone.”

This synthesis does not do justice to McCullough’s piece (you can find it with other Portraits in History, Simon & Shuster, 1992).

But it gave me pause to think of its relevance to our profession in 2005 in which we find some disillusionment.

What to do about it?

More and more I’ve become impressed by the fact that helping real people gives lawyers the greatest satisfaction. I found it among lawyers who did the pro bono adoption work that I described in my January Bar Journal article.

I’ve seen it in the enthusiasm expressed in the legal service self-help clinic in Orange County and in the Chico State Community Legal Information Center manned by college students (mentored by lawyers).

I previously found it in my work as a federal public defender helping real red-blooded people get an opportunity for a new lease on life.

I’ve found it in the work of district attorneys helping to make victims whole.

And I’ve found it in the satisfaction lawyers get in addressing policy questions.

I’ve found it in my work with the Planning and Conservation League as we’ve tried to preserve some semblance of a balance between nature and our civilization which threatens to overwhelm it.

I’ve found it at the State Bar where our board of governors has worked to strengthen its public protection role and to make the bar more relevant to its members. (See You Need to Know on p. 14.)

The best advice I give to young lawyers is to do what they enjoy. And as we all know, that’s personal to each of us. And as they figure that out, I tell them to have a life, a home life as well as outside interests.

But I hope that lawyers, like aviators, develop Long Distance Vision.

An old story attributed to Justice Robert Jackson: Three stonemasons were asked what they were doing. One said, “I’m laying a brick.” The second said, “I’m building a wall.”  The third said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Doing what gives us satisfaction, looking beyond ourselves and taking responsibility are the best bromides for disillusionment that I know.

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