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From Competition to Compassion

Jeff Kroeber
On Competition (January 2017)
Healing the World

When I graduated from law school and began working as an attorney, I thought I had “arrived,” that my career would unfold seamlessly, and that I would achieve, through competition and striving, excellent results for my clients. Success was going to happen just at it had in high school and college – work hard, don’t get distracted, follow the rules, and things just naturally fall into place.

I graduated near the top of my high school class, then graduated from Williams College, where it was a given that our alumni would go on to Wall Street, medicine, law, academia, and leadership positions around the country. And they did. One of my classmates became Dean of Yale Law School. Others became noted physicians, and some founded companies that thrive today. Coming from a middle-class family in Los Angeles, I did not expect to enter the elite myself, but it was exciting to watch people all around me whom I believed to be budding superstars.

Entering the practice of law with the Santa Clara County Public Defenders Office, I felt ready and determined to give my clients the same vigorous representation that paying clients might receive. What I found instead was a criminal justice system run almost entirely by white folks, suspicious of people of color, and willing to go to great lengths to prove their suspicions. For example, the county district attorney’s office occasionally hid evidence that might have undercut their case against a defendant,  sometimes produced evidence too late to be helpful to the defense, and sometimes produced it only when directly ordered to do so by a judge.

There were trials in which it was clear that I had out-worked the prosecutor – clear from the favorable rulings I got throughout the trial from the judge. Then to my dismay and my client’s greater dismay, a jury of well-to-do and retired people would review the facts of the case through their own privileged lenses, and they would convict my client, who was often someone of an ethnicity different from their own.

Further, it was not unknown to me to find myself facing two prosecutors in one of our courts: the district attorney and the “second prosecutor” – the judge. Most judges did not slip into that trap, but some did, and the consequences were bad for my clients.

During one such experience, a judge became upset with me for standing my ground for my client. I persisted in objecting to evidence, beyond merely perfunctory motions. The judge, an autocrat in his courtroom, took me back into his chambers, berated me, and then demanded, “What do you have to say for yourself?” My automatic response was, “Judge, I cannot help it. My ancestors committed felony offenses.” He was dumbstruck. I explained that Levi Coffin and others had harbored fugitive slaves, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and had helped to send runaways to Canada and freedom. The judge threw up his hands and never bothered me again.

My life of courtroom competition continued for forty years, sometimes winning trials and sometimes winning acquittals for defendants who were not guilty. I won a case in the California Supreme Court against a false accusation, which allowed my client to continue with his life.

However, during my forty-year career as a defense lawyer, I gradually shifted my focus away from the conflict and drama of the courtroom and toward the real, living human beings with souls who passed through the courtroom. As I continued living and practicing the Quaker testimonies of peace, integrity, and equality, my competitive instincts faded.

I had been attending Friends Meeting for nine or ten years. Several Friends reached out to me when I first arrived. Two of them acted as spiritual mentors in a deep, caring way. I heard of “silence,” “the Light,” “God,” “seasoning,” and “inner peace,” but rarely did I experience them. Then came a catharsis – a gathered meeting one First Day. I became aware of what had been occurring all along, but which had eluded me as I sat in silence while dutifully reviewing my past week and planning the next one in my mind.

It was as though I felt the sun rising over the mountains, opening the miracle of a new day, with discoveries I had heard about, but had not done the footwork and prayer to achieve myself before that. I recall the deep silence in that first covered meeting I experienced, the power of the peace, and moral courage demonstrated in the lives of the Friends around me. I felt as though the sun was sending warmth down into my soul.

For many years, I had been teaching law at Santa Clara University. Each semester, during the last class of the term, I talk directly to my students about moral courage. This is a powerful message that these young people do not hear from other law professors – that each one of them can make a difference by being of service to their clients and their community. As part of my Quaker epiphany, I realized this: I had been giving this homily to students I know and respect, but I had not yet fully committed to principles of moral courage in my own life as a Friend.

Since that time, I have paid conscious attention to furthering my spiritual journey. Part of that effort has involved a good amount of spiritual reading. Two books that I especially recommend to Friends are Falling Upward by Richard Rohr and Eastern Light by Steve Smith. Both of these books explore contemporary efforts to live real lives in the Light, lives that resonate with the message of George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn, Thomas Kelly, Levi Coffin, and Rufus Jones.

Both Rohr and Smith emphasize that fear is an obstacle to growth. Rohr warns that “the blinding nature of fear” can drive a person to “end up worshiping the status quo . . . as if it were God!” Smith encourages that “Abiding in God, we know that God abides in us. Love banishes fear. Anxiety is replaced by confidence, courage and joy: we find our prophetic voice and are free to act boldly in the world.”

Slowly, step by step, my life is becoming one of compassion. I am coming to see competition as a partner to fear – of failing, of falling short, of not meeting the expectations of others. And I am coming to see that compassion is born of spiritual and moral courage. ~~~

Jeff Kroeber is a member of San Jose Friends Meeting (PYM), where he was co-clerk for several years. He teaches law at Santa Clara University School of Law. He can often be found on hiking trails.

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