Good in the World

Written by Professor Shauna Van Praagh.

In September 2013, as I began yet another academic year at McGill Law – with all of the excitement and trepidation, name-learning and custom-absorbing that la rentrée inevitably brings – I received a present from the university. I had completed twenty years at McGill, and my gift was a little Birks gold-plated pin to mark not so much the occasion or achievement but simply the passage of time.

Twenty years is indeed a long time – twenty rentrées, each one unique and yet similar, and hundreds of students, unique in their individuality and yet similar in their collective curiosity and energy, occasional cynicism and sustained enthusiasm. Five years earlier, the graduating class asked me to offer some parting thoughts as they said good-bye to the place in which their formal legal education was coming to an end. Many of them had taken Extra-Contractual Obligations/Torts, Advanced Common Law Obligations, and/or Social Diversity and Law with me…and so I tried to weave together some of the themes that had formed the framework for their classroom learning and would continue in their lives as long-term students of law in all of its complex sites and potential forms.

As I look back over twenty years, and look ahead to the students who will keep arriving, keep learning, keep teaching me and their other professors, many of the comments I made in the form of a farewell in 2008 seem relevant as ‘halfway’ point reflections. So, here they are – transformed into words for women and men ‘halfway’ through their time as law students, from a teacher ‘halfway’ through a career of shared conversations and projects that, in the best feminist fashion, continually connect law and life.

I begin with a quote from one of my most reliable sources in law: Harry Potter. In Book Seven, Hermione – in her indomitable way – insists on the reasons for a Ministry of Magic law and on the applicable rules of evidence. “Are you planning a career in Magical Law, Miss Granger?” asks the annoyed Minister of Magic. “No, I’m not,” retorts Hermione, “I’m hoping to do some good in the world!”

As McGill law students, you no doubt challenge the dichotomy that Hermione takes for granted. You plan careers in law, whether magical or not; you are preparing to be jurists, whatever your particular path. Probably you also hope to do some good in the world, to join with others in your projects, to have a positive influence on others’ lives. The two aspirations must be compatible. But the fact that Hermione and perhaps others like her question the combination of becoming a jurist and doing good in the world should give us pause.

The poet and essayist Audre Lorde said, in her book “Sister Outsider,” that “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives had direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” Her comment has profound implications for people who take seriously the task of bringing about change, the responsibility for adjusting perspective, and the need to find structures of thinking and speaking that capture our complex, textured reality. It brings together the personal potential and self-determination of individuals with the connected, constitutive character of the communities in which we participate and flourish. As jurists, you might indeed do good in the world by influencing the quality of the light, polishing the lens through which constructive scrutiny takes place, and joining together to effect change.

But I want to combine Hermione’s insistence and Audre Lorde’s reminder by suggesting some of the links between law and learning, law and life, and law and love. In doing so, I answer Hermione by saying that doing good is what people can decide to do, at the micro or macro level, in their families or in their offices, in leadership roles and in community participation. Working with law, acting as jurists, accepting one’s heavy responsibility as a lawyer…these simply represent one particular way of making that decision to do good, one particular mode of going about implementing that decision, one kind of light by which to illuminate the path ahead.

To speak to you about law and learning, I turn to another of my favourite sources: Justice Benjamin Cardozo. In addressing a graduating class of law students in 1925, Justice Cardozo characterized the processes of law as “fascinating, baffling, elusive, infinite in their variety of aspects, and yet infinite also in appeal to the heart and mind and spirit of generous and ambitious youth.” He spoke of the importance of looking back in order to move forward. According to Cardozo, “one must be historian and prophet all in one – the qualities of each united in a perfect blend.” Indeed, the endeavour of prophesying and shaping justice for the future can be taken on with confidence only if we know from whence we came. Studying law is all about the fragile equilibrium of our roles as historian and prophet.

Nous connaissons le code civil du Québec comme successeur du Code civil du Bas-Canada; nous l’apprécions en explorant ses racines dans la tradition civiliste, les coutumes et pratiques, et les cultures d’une société. Et de là, nous pouvons suggérer de nouvelles interprétations, nous pouvons même rentrer dans la discussion qu’on appelle la doctrine. Egalement, si nous voulons participer au projet de tracer des limites de droit privé dans le contexte de la responsabilité de nos gouvernements envers les citoyens, il faut retourner en common law à l’histoire bien connue de Mme Donoghue et du petit escargot. Finalement, si nous voulons comprendre les promesses et périls du droit au Tibet, en Syrie, en République centrafricaine, il faut regarder notre passé, il faut étudier nos erreurs et nos succès autour de notre monde partagé.

The constant backwards and forwards of learning law, of looking to the past at the same time that you are expected to imagine the future, is a crucial part of the identity and experience of students. It is not only the substance of law that develops with constant reference to its sources; it is the very process of learning the language of law that equips us as future participants by ensuring that we play first with the building blocks.

Ten years ago on sabbatical in Ste Alvère, a little village in southern France, new friends gave us a gift of two huge cèpes – wild mushrooms larger than an adult hand – that they had found hidden in the Périgord woods. All the while they whispered assurances of how special and unique these were. As we cut them up, sautéed them in garlic, olive oil and parsley, we realized that we had been truly initiated as residents of Ste Alvère, moved from the periphery of observers or tourists into the circle of true citizens. For law students, it is not at first clear where the special cèpes are hiding, or how to cook them, savour them, truly appreciate their flavour, texture, and aroma. But you have now found them, you have moved from novice to true citizen, able to work with sources and substance, process and promise. Law and learning merge subtly but inexorably into law and the rest of your lives.

I do not want to try to say too much about law and life. I am just a professor, and sticking to legal education seems like a pretty safe bet! But if learning law is like learning how to find the special mushroom as well as how to treasure and enjoy it, then maybe life in law is all about figuring out one’s own identity as a jurist, one’s own special way of discovering the hidden cèpe. Finding wild mushrooms in life becomes part of the everyday, still savoured but gradually understood and claimed.

Perhaps, as a professor of obligations, I can offer one small idea about the ways in which you will each develop your own modus vivendi of life in law, of law and life. Like everyone else, you owe an obligation to act reasonably vis-à-vis others, neighbours, the people whom you can foresee might be affected by your actions. As jurists, that obligation may sometimes be heightened given the expertise that you are expected to have. But the true moments in which you will have an impact on other people will be those in which you move beyond fulfilling your obligations. They will be the moments in which you care for others, give advice, say a kind word, hold a hand. They will be the transsystemic moments in which doing good and doing law really do merge, in which your role as mentor will eclipse the projects in which you invest so much time and energy, and in which the support you give will reinforce the framework of your lives.

This brings me finally to law and love. Here I really don’t want to say much at all…after all, you will discover your own ways in which to flourish in love, live in loving relationships, and, for many of you, give more love than you thought possible to your children, and have that love tested again and again…and again! To illustrate the potential for mixing law together with light and learning, life and love, I turn to a final reference: a poem with which I sometimes finish my first year classes. This is a 45 year-old poem by the New Brunswick poet, Alden Nowlan, entitled “The Masks of Love.”

I come in from a walk
With you
And they ask me
If it is raining.

I didn’t notice
But I’ll have to give them
The right answer
Or they’ll think I’m crazy.

Entirely absorbed in love, the “I” in the poem has gone for a walk and has no idea whether it is raining or not. Usually, of course, we notice if the rain is coming down. We feel damp, and then wet, we say we are soaked, and we may even feel like we are drowning. But sometimes we can ignore the rain, because of love. We can put our engagement in law in perspective, because of life. We can find renewed energy and creativity as we continually recreate our interactions with law, because of our interactions with other people.

We can choose whether to feel submerged as the rain comes down, or whether to enjoy the taste and feel of the raindrops, and to look forward to the sights, smells and sounds of spring. As you slide into and emerge from – over and over again – what may sometimes feel like a true flood of ideas and challenges, remember some of the moments in which you didn’t even notice you were getting wet. Those are the moments when autonomy and relationship intertwine, when inner strength merges with societal transformation, when finding a voice in law becomes doing good in the world. And they are what convince us not to stop halfway, but to keep moving forward – on our own and together.

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