Throughout the law school experience, my greatest trouble has been solitude. To a melancholic, solitude is often a refuge, a warm and soft den where thoughts and emotions can be safely acknowledged, unknotted, mourned, and wrangled. But when the solitude is inescapable, when the den gives way to a cold, endless cave, the melancholic mind and spirit encounter no safe refuge. The realities of law school not only stretched solitude into a cavern, but also exacerbated the need for the den.
The degree of loss was my greatest surprise. To an extent, I expected some solitude, some loss of relationship. Intuitively, I braced for greater distance between myself and my extended family and friends. This occurred, but that distance grew in relationships where I did not expect it to grow, laying bare the previous strength of those relationships.
Survivors warn prospective law students of this phenomenon, but they are usually quick to add that new relationships from within the law school community will fill this void. That prospect doesn’t necessarily hold true for non-traditional law students, those not inclined to participate in the binges typical of worldly grad students and those with families demanding – and deserving of – any and all spare moments. To be sure, I have made friends of many of my colleagues, and I appreciate the pleasant conversations, practical assistance, and care that we have exhibited for each other. Yet, most of them (the “kids”) can only relate to a small portion of my experience – balancing school while managing family, career, and adult life were mostly foreign to them.
My first realization of loss occurred within the first month or two of my 1L year. It was then I first noticed the loss of respect, and I grieved that loss for a while – and perhaps still struggle to put it behind me. My former ability to command respect, to look people in the eye and know that there was mutual respect and a willingness to speak and act toward common goals, was gone. Professors don’t hold students in high regard, nor should they, in a manner of speaking. However, I felt that my age and experience – in some cases exceeding those of my professors – should have set me apart from other students in the eyes of professors, inclining them to engage me on another, fuller level. Not only did that not happen, the opposite often occurred.
The simple fact that law school exists largely in the theoretical, usually with only one outlet per course (a final exam), is practically to blame for much of the solitude. There are few outlets for the vast amounts of knowledge and ideas that we take in, and even those few outlets tend to be narrow and limited, divorced from human realities. Perhaps the role of a new legal associate is designed to be a gradual release of this built-up pressure and isolation, which could be dangerous to people. Yet I can’t help but believe that the legal profession would be better off with a different system, perhaps even a “reading into” the profession under tutelage and experience. The legal clinic is a help in this regard, but it is not wholly sufficient.
The vast intake of knowledge creates the need for a sufficient outlet. But couple this knowledge with the weightiness of life, philosophy, and theology, and the melancholic needs the soft den of solitude all the more to emotionally work out the mass of problems that have been absorbed. Yet that solitude needs to be broken by relationships that beckon the melancholic to come back out of the den, to not wander further into the cold recesses of the cave. When there isn’t time or space to hear those voices, and when the flow of knowledge itself carries the melancholic further into the bowels of the cavern, all he can do is read on in wide-eyed terror or look away in cynical indifference.
Coming to the end of law school, and winding my way back out of the cave, I do begin to see light and hear welcome voices. My wife and children have been remarkably resilient, as have a few friendships. But I worry whether I will ever be able to relate to people as I once did, or if the terror and cynicism left indelible marks that can ever be overcome. At the end of this ride, I wonder if solitude will ever again be the comfortable den, or if perhaps, in some way, the new den may not include solitude at all.