Letters from Berkeley


Dusk has just taken hold, and underneath my window, a motley group of 50 or so are blowing whistles, beating drums and chanting anti-war slogans.

No, you’re not in Cambridge anymore. This is how we do it at Cal Berkeley where I am spending my last year of law school.

My mother called me with the news at 8 a.m. last Tuesday morning, and for the entire day I had very little emotional reaction. I have not watched TV on any regular basis for a few years now, and for better or worse, I had come to view myself as so irrelevant while at Harvard that I stopped reading the newspaper. The only news I read for the past two years was drug-related, because I felt that since that was the area of law I intended to go into and hopefully have an effect in, I might as well stay abreast of the issues. Knowing about the rest of the world seemed to be a waste of time and more frustrating than rewarding.

For the past two years, I had believed that what I was doing — isolating myself from the rest of the country, the rest of the world — was efficient, if anything. I also felt very humbled. In my mind, I had come to terms with the irrelevance of my existence; and that was an achievement.

At the same time, I had also lost my ability to empathize. When my mother told me about the people who had died, I did not visualize the victims. Though I had lived in New York for four years, I did not even pick up the phone to see if my friends were all right. My only reaction was surprise, not that the events had happened, but that they had not happened before when political scientists have been predicting this kind of thing for years. I had become the rational actor we like to pretend only exists in the hypothetical world.

Perhaps I would have reacted similarly had I been a New York Times reader. Maybe I would not have begun reading the newspaper, and even the feature stories on the last minutes of the passengers of the various hijacked aircrafts, if my boyfriend had not called me a cold-hearted bitch.

But for whatever the reason, I realized that simply because I may not be making the policy calls right now, there is value in knowing what’s going on and being a part of the world, and it is simply that — feeling like you’re part of something.

It is important for us to be able to feel some solidarity with other people. If we lose that, as I have begun to, the world may not be any different-looking, but we’ll feel a lot more alone, a lot more disconnected. I can tell you from my own experience.

We may not be able to make foreign policy. But that does not mean that I cannot affect the “collective unconscious.” Our effects may not be indelible or even visible, but it’s much easier to live when you believe in spite of proof that your views have an impact in some meaningful way.

I was chilling (Berkeley-style) in an undergrad dorm Tuesday night with some freshmen. One girl said she had been lambasted by her classmates because she did not think the U.S. should bomb Afghanistan. “What should we do, then?” someone asked. She told them she didn’t know and received more criticism. I told her that she did not have to know the right argument simply because she knew another one did not work.

In my response to the freshman is the beauty of being in the law. Our role is that of question-asker, argument-maker — an advocate. We realize that the only thing that may be true is that there is no truth, that every situation is comprised of an infinite number of perspectives and that offering any one of them is valuable in and of itself.

If you’ve wondered or stressed about being emotionally distant this past week, perhaps I have solved the riddle for you. You’re not bad; you’ve just humbled yourself too much and tried to become the rational actor we all read about. It’s not your fault; we were trained that way. For the rest who do not know the answers, be assured that you do not have to. You even have an excuse: You’re going to be a lawyer.