Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Back, Moving Forward

It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forward.
Søren Kierkegaard
At times of transition in my life, I often look back and wonder what I would have done differently if I had it to do all over again. As my law school graduation approaches this weekend, I've been running in mental circles trying to figure out if I could have made these past 10 years better.

Ten years ago, in 2001, I was 19 years old. I was on top of the world, just finishing up my sophomore year in college. I was in the ROTC, and I was about to take command of the color guard. I had my life all planned out. I was going to finish college, join the Air Force, go to law school, and spend my career as a JAG officer. (I also planned on getting married, living in a house with a white picket fence with 2.4 kids and a dog. Well, a cat. I don't really like dogs.)

Life didn't happen quite like I planned. I developed some problems with my foot. My doctor said that I had the most severe case she had seen in her entire career and that she had no idea how I was still able to walk. I'll never forget the morning I had surgery. It was on September 11. I was pressured to drop out of college and enlist, but I didn't. Somehow, I think the surgery was a blessing. I might have if I hadn't had the recovery time to think long and hard about it.

Right around this time, I had fallen in love with the subject of philosophy. I felt a call to become a professor, but I ignored the call in favor of continuing on the path toward law school. I majored in political science, even though I didn't really like the subject anymore. (I started out as a poli sci major, and I figured I had gone too far down that path to change majors.) I minored in philosophy. I was 2 classes short of a double major, and I regret not taking those extra classes.

My senior year in college, I dutifully took the LSAT, and I did well. I started getting my law school applications ready. I knew I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, and I hoped to get into Stanford. As it came time to put in the applications, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't know why. I decided instead to go on a mission.

So, in August 2003, when my life plan said I should be going to law school, I instead headed off to North Carolina to preach the good word. I had a miserable mission. I know that's really taboo to say in LDS circles, but it's the truth. It was not anything approaching the best time of my life. To this day, I wonder if I made a mistake in going. A mission is a good thing to do, but I think I might have done it for the wrong reasons. I was running away from something. (Running away didn't work out for me any better than it worked for Jonah, but at least I didn't have to be swallowed by a fish.)

Still, I can't bring myself to say that I regret going. Because of the difficulties that I went through, I grew closer to God than I had known was possible. That relationship sustained me then, and it continues to sustain me now. I can put up with a lot of stupid stuff in the church because I know God. He is way more boundless in His love for us than we often think.

My mission was also a turning point in my feminism. Before my mission, I thought feminists were a bunch of whiners with victim complexes. I had never hit a glass ceiling, so I figured that those who claimed that they had just weren't working hard enough. Well, in Charlotte, I ran headlong into that ceiling, and the concussion was dizzying. In addition to learning of the existence of that ceiling, I learned that God is not the creator of that ceiling, even though some people in the church proclaim its divine origin.

When I got home, in December 2004, everyone told me I should work for a few months and go to law school in the fall. I decided that I wanted to jump in right away and make up for lost time. That was a huge mistake. I started law school in January 2005 at a 4th tier school that accepted 1Ls mid year. I didn't know that school rank mattered. Honestly, I didn't know anything about law school. I thought it would be like grad school - a never-ending series of interesting discussions with interesting people about big and important philosophical ideas.

Everything fell apart in mid 2006 and I spent the next two years clawing my way back. I considered on more than one occasion just abandoning the whole law school thing and going for a PhD in philosophy. I would be poor but happy. My pride wouldn't allow this, though. I had something to prove, so I went out, graduated magna cum laude from paralegal school, and then went back to law school somewhere better.

I had to start over as a 1L. That was difficult. The boredom was mind-numbing. Things got better when I could start choosing my own classes. I found that the classes I enjoyed the most were the theory oriented philosophical classes. (My favorite required classes were constitutional law and criminal procedure. I also loved most of my seminars. I took at least one per semester.) I decided that it was time to answer the call to teach. I fell in love with legal scholarship. It's hard work, but it's interesting and rewarding.

I have an uphill battle ahead of me to become a professor. But, God has promised to fight the battles of His people. Still, I wonder how things could have been different.

I think the fork in my road was back in 2003 when I decided to go on a mission instead of to law school. If I had applied to law school, I probably would have gotten into Stanford. I would have graduated in 2006, gotten a clerkship, published a few articles, and I would probably be a professor right now.

But, would I be the person I am? I don't know if I would have been ready for law school at 21. Obviously I would have been scholastically ready, but I don't know if I would have had the life experience to make such major decisions about my future. Law school is about more than accumulating knowledge; there's an element of judgment involved. The judgment centers of the brain don't finish developing until age 25.

Would I have the relationship with God that I have now? I'm not sure. Ever since I joined the church as a teenager, I've been close to God, but before my mission, my faith was simplistic and lacked nuance. I was unable to see the complexities of life. I don't know if my mission is what helped me see that, or if it's a natural part of the maturing process that happens in the early 20's.

At any rate, it's a moot point. Life is a one-way trip, and I don't get a do-over. Saturday is graduation, five years late. In the parable of the laborers, those who began their labors in the vineyard in the eleventh hour received the same reward as those who began in the first hour. Instead of spending my energy on what-ifs, I need to seize the day and live my life forward.

Graduation is often called commencement. Here's to a new beginning.


Dave said...

Congratulations, Keri! I hope you enjoy the big day.

Erstwild said...

I had a miserable mission. I know that's really taboo to say in LDS circles, but it's the truth.

I know the feeling well. On my mission, I expected difficulties & challenges dealing with non-members, I knew it would not be all smooth sailing. But, I was shocked by the attitudes & conduct towards me by other missionaries. Yes, there was nice ones, but some just loved making me a scapegoat, or were immature in how they dealt with me or others.

Congrats on Graduating.