It’s taken me a little while to write again. There’s a tragic reality I have encountered in my work here as a legal intern that’s taken me away from words— knowing that nothing I could say, no set of words, no special phrasing, and no blog post could hope to explain the world of crime that I’ve experienced here working in the legal system.
The hero myth that I’d romanticized about before coming here I’ve found to be devastatingly untrue. The idea that I’d march in and change the world— righting wrongs and helping people find freedom from the chaos. There are limitations to thoughts and hopes that sometimes can only be truly realized through experiencing a place, and working as a part of their system. The world of law is a world of gray. There is very little black and white, very little entirely right or entirely wrong, perhaps this is what I’ve come to know all too well.
We may represent a teenage client guilty of a brutal gang murder, and it’s legally our job to fight for his rights. It seems black and white, right and wrong, at first; but the background of some people, the motive, the age, and the parties involved can change everything. Very soon, something entirely wrong can become entirely grey. The world of grey, where reality overtakes the dreams of hopeful simplicity, can be discouraging as well as eye opening.
Once you’ve been somewhere and lived as the locals do for more than a month, you begin to see the guts of a place. Working in the world of crime and violence, I’ve seen and experienced nothing that you will see on Google, nothing that you can find in photos, and nothing that you will hear from someone who spent time here on vacation or some type of school trip.
In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass— An American Slave, he speaks of learning how to read. His describes the destruction within him that reading caused— the cursed knowledge to never see his world through innocent and illiterate eyes again. He writes:
“I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity… I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it… It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”
Once he knows the difference, once he learns of an entirely different world separate from the one he’s known, he is unable to be free from the pain that knowing has brought to him— he cannot go back to the world of what it is to not know. Frederick Douglas describes this as the darkest night of his soul. A moment where his world has completely changed from knowing the difference between innocence and knowledge— knowledge that he cannot give back.
People say that ignorance is bliss; I agree. The things that I’ve seen here, and the world that I’ve experienced, will leave imprints of anguish and sorrow that are too strong for me to ever let fade from my mind. Imprints of my own sorrow and anguish, yes, but the stronger imprint is the sorrow that faces so many of these people every day. My time here will come to an end soon, and I will carry the experiences that I’ve been a part of here in my mind and heart forever; but, for so many of the people I’ve worked with, there is no place to carry these stories and experiences back to— these “stories” are their lives, and these “experiences” are the source of their sorrow and anguish.
So many moments in our lives reform the world we see, and take away ignorance and innocence that we never knew we had. That is simply to say that that this place has changed me, and I can no longer see from eyes of ignorance. The world that I have been so privileged to live in before is one that I feel now can only look at from the outside— after experiencing an entirely different world and realizing some of the differences that I, ignorant and innocent, previously knew nothing of.
I knew this experience would grow me— whether good or bad, hard or simple, free or binding. More than anything that’s grown in me during my time here is my perspective on injustice, and what it is to know and experience unbelievable injustice first hand— to hate it and yearn to make it right, and at the same time realize that there is only so little in our human power that we can do.
It seems to me, that so much of our power to fight injustice isn’t held in legal documents, police reports, or politics— perhaps our best stand against injustice is simply to love. To dare to believe that we, as human beings, are bigger than our past, our mistakes, where we grew up, and where our failures lie. We all make our choices in the end, regardless of what others say or our circumstances or any influence in our lives. In the end, human beings get to choose how we act, justly or unjustly, and maybe that most powerful choice that we can make is simply to choose love. Regardless of what we’ve lost, or how bad the world seems sometimes, maybe the most powerful and poetic thing we can do is to choose love.