Monday, October 4, 2010

The First Monday in October

Early this morning, on my run in Central Park, I had an unusual person on my mind: Elena Kagan. The point of that sentence isn't to suggest that Kagan is essentially "unusual" (although her life now is by no means "usual"), but rather that she or any other Supreme Court justice is an "unusual" individual for me to consider as I round Cat's Paw and summit the Great Hill. This morning, however, thoughts of a determined little girl from the Upper West Side replaced my "usual" mental fodder of breakfast foods and athletically-themed daydreams (last week's featured a long fantasy of what it would be like to run Western States).

Much of the focus on this First Monday in October has been on the Court's docket, which features a number of potentially incendiary cases, and which will reveal how the Court's new liberal minority bloc will act. But the docket and its adjudication are things that I consider while eating lunch or arguing with friends; early morning runs create instead the forum for imaginative epic narratives, the ones with larger-than-life characters and powerful dreams and enormous, messy questions. And so, you see, I found myself charging the Three Sisters while wondering what motivated Kagan to pursue her Supreme Court dream for so long, and what sustained her in pursuit of that dream despite the realization that so much depended on timing, and the other nominees, and the President, and the Senate.

Pondering Kagan's narrative mishmash hasn't led me to any sense of resolution, other than that I'm very impressed that she realized the singular focus of her life-long ambition. It does strike me as almost exquisite that all of the variables listed above fell perfectly into place, and I wonder at the number (10? 15?) of lawyers and judges with similar dreams who came so close to that same realization, only to see it disappear because of one better nominee or one flubbed confirmation hearing. Still, I can't help but think of Kagan and these other would-be justices in light of William Deresiewicz's recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "What Are You Going To Do With That?", particularly with regard to his comments on how we make choices, take chances, and make mistakes. Or more accurately, how many of us don't make choices, or take chances, or let ourselves make mistakes.

What I'm really wondering about, as a result, is to what extent Kagan and the other justices and those would-be justices really, truly wanted the positions that they currently possess (or don't). My guess is that they must have or they wouldn't have achieved them; on the other hand, what if they're seated on the bench because it was easier and more obvious than not sitting on the bench? In other words, a bright, hard-working, driven young woman at seventeen--the year that she wears a judge's robe and holds a gavel in her high school yearbook--has decided she wants to be a Supreme Court Justice, and from that moment on the following steps on this chosen trajectory are clear: college, law school, law review, clerkship, law practice, Justice Department lawyer, law professor, etc. etc. etc. Isn't it easier to follow religiously this completely visible path than to recognize, say, halfway through law school, or while snowed under a mountain of Justice Department cases, that maybe this isn't exactly what one wants, and, harder still, to change direction? Or did she--or any of the others in this data set--pause at each step, honestly assess herself, her happiness, and her dreams, and realize that, yes, this was the path she wanted to pursue?

I have no reason to doubt that Elena Kagan is and was very happy with her choices, or that she is, as Deresiewicz says, someone who "[made her] choices for the right reasons", and who recognized and embraced her "moral freedom". But it's on my mind because right now taking chances is very much on my mind, as is the difference between perceived safe choices and the right choices for oneself. I suppose that what I can't shake is the sense that by sticking for so long, and from such a young age, to the same ramrod trajectory, that Kagan never opened herself to other possibilities (who knows what those possibilities could have been?). On the other hand, I'm very happy that today a fourth female Supreme Court Justice takes her seat.
So, on that note, I say Happy First Monday in October, Justice Kagan. And here's to your new path.

1 comment:

  1. There are no "safe" choices. We delude ourselves when we think that. Life is a chaotic, adrenaline filled ping-ponging surprise every day.

    The best we can do is to leave ourselves open to the surprises that life has in store for us.

    All my attempts at a "well planned life" ended up on the slag heap. Only when I learned to embrace the crazyness did things start to work out.

    Even if Elena wanted to get to the SCOTUS, a series of happy accidents were needed to get her there. She, however, clearly embraced the possibilities and went with choices that life gave her.