Power (Part 4): The Movie “Fight Club”

A theme I refer to often as a lawyer is “power”. [See my previous three posts on this topic.] That is, how can I help clients maintain greater power over their circumstances so as to have, what I consider, a more enjoyable response to life. A life not burdened by indecision, doubt, fear of what or how other people are reacting or thinking about them, etc.  In other words, greater independence and control.

Loss of control fuels anger very effectively. As a relevant aside, I heard on the radio this morning that today is Colin Powell’s 79th birthday. I am reminded of his great “Get mad. Then, get over it.” comment he made a few years ago on a talk show in response to him and his wife on their then-50th wedding anniversary.

I also grew up with many discussions and reflections on the topic of anger. My late father, who practiced law in Atlanta for 45 years, planted firmly into my two brothers and me the notion of “firm, but friendly”. He did not shy away from controversy nor from anger. For him the balance of anger in a firm but friendly manner was a constant aspiration that required persistent practice.

But, this practice is certainly, in my view, a better option than merely being compliant, weak, overly concerned always with what others think, and indecisive.  Two of the saddest characters in literature burned into my early consciousness are George Babbitt (in Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis) and Willy Loman (in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller). They each powerfully symbolize a compliant, weak, concern-always-with-what-others-think, indecisive character. Images of great unhappiness.

Now, why this blog post? One of my teenage daughters this past weekend wanted to watch a movie “that plays with your mind”.  She selected Fight Club (1999), with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. The movie is based on the 1996 book with the same title by Chuck Palahniuk. We both thought the movie was compelling and extremely thought-provoking. We liked it.

So as not to be a spoiler, I say only two things about Fight Club for this post. One is that it touches extremely well on bringing the audience directly to the above Babbitt / Loman notion of lack of power and its resulting self-destruction. Two is that if you watch this movie, or have seen it before, ponder for a moment what reaction you have or had to it. The magic of the movie is how likely telling are the array of responses from viewers. Your response might better inform you about your own perspective of the above power / independent notion.

“I would be crushed, then I would be un-crushed.”

My two daughters and I had a spontaneous discussion the other evening about death, that to my surprise greatly eased my worry (as all parents have) about how our children will fare after our death.

We were talking about my new lawyer shoes that the salesman said would easily last two lifetimes. One of my daughters, in response, said: “Daddy, but you will not live that long.” I responded “You are exactly right, but I certainly plan to be around as long as I can.”

My daughter’s comment prompted me to remind my girls that it is likely inevitable I will die before they die. And, I said that although they will be sad and feel a loss, they will have the strength and ability to move on in life and not be crushed by my death. They will have the emotional durability to continue with life without being persistently burdened by my death, etc.  My oldest daughter then responded: “I will be crushed when you die; but, then I will be un-crushed.”  I replied: “What a great response!”

For purposes of this blog post, let me just say the attitude and responses from my daughters give me a great sense of comfort and repose about death. That is, my death and its potential effect on them. I am actually quite surprised at how strongly I feel relief after this discussion.

Also, my purpose with this blog post is not to try and compel anyone as to how they should think or deal with death, etc. But, death is a topic I believe needs to be openly discussed.

And, for me the ultimate, most satisfying perspective I know of about death culminates in a passage from Robert Persig’s fine book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. More specifically, the passage is about Persig’s son Chris who, at age 11 rode with Persig on the motorcycle trip described in this book, was stabbed to death 10 years later as a victim in a failed-robbery attempt.

In the book’s “Afterward”, that Persig later added after Chris’s death, Persig describes his own persistent “stuckness” about his son’s death. This stuckness appeared to have no possibility of resolution.

But, in an extraordinary, moving passage in this Afterward, Persig describes a comforting resolution to this stuckness about his son Chris. I believe Persig’s commentary is one of the more satisfying responses I have found to the hard, difficult question about death.

Click here for a link to Persig’s Afterward.

Change is Inevitable. Embrace It. Plan for It.

The essence of this post is that change is inevitable.  As a lawyer I try and help my clients accept and anticipate change by putting in place adaptable planning, particularly adaptability that later can kick in as needed without costly, lawyer / judicial oversight, etc.   As to change generally, my view is that we all should expect it and embrace it. Preventive planning is, therefore, a means of more cost-effectively smoothing out the edges of inevitable change.

This notion of change hit me yesterday strongly while I was reading the NYT’s book reviews. I was particularly drawn to the following couple of items, prompting this blog post.

The first is from a review (as one of the top NYT books of 2015) of T.C. Boyle’s novel The Harder They Come. Essentially about a father coming to terms with his violent son who is wanted by the law, etc.  Among several comments by the NYT reviewer applauding this book, I was struck by one of its themes described as “the dark fallout of ideological certainty and obsession.”

The second NYT book review that struck me is Dylan Goes Electric, by Elijah Wald.  This is about Bob Dylan’s revolutionary injection into the 1965 Newport Folk Festival of the electric guitar. The reviewer refers to this as Dylan savaging the then-acoustic sanctuary of the Newport Folk Festival stage.  Apparently shocking and greatly criticized at that time, Dylan’s “change” is significant in the history of popular music. Our music world, in my opinion, was greatly enhanced by Dylan’s change.  Here is a YouTube link of Dylan’s electrified performance of “Maggie’s Farm” if you wish to see footage of this event.  I recommend you watch it.  Click here.

Helping Clients Have Power: Blog Post 2 of 3

One of my previous blog posts, dated December 3, 2014, is titled “A Lawyer Should Help You Attain Freedom and Power”. This current post is the second of what will be three posts on this subject of power.

Also, one of my favorite statements attributed to Gandhi is: Be truthful, gentle, and fearless. This, in my view, should be the golden rule for each of us. I am trying diligently to teach my kids that they should strive to be powerful in life, but at the same time treat other people ethically and with kindness. In other words, be truthful, gentle, and fearless.

This power element boils down not to allowing other people to frame your reality. If someone criticizes you, gives you a demand or directive, etc., your first reaction should be not to respond within that other person’s framework.

Letting yourself be controlled by the other person’s framework is, for example, having your initial response be “Oh no, that person is mad at me” or “I must have done something wrong” or “I better be careful and not make this other person upset with me”, etc. This is a weak response.

By contrast, the more powerful response is to begin by evaluating another person’s comments first within your own framework.   My main point is not to turn any other person’s comment immediately into self-criticism or self-doubt about your response to life.

And, this more powerful response I am suggesting does not mean in all cases merely a close-minded, hardline, knee-jerk opposition to what someone tells you. Rather, it means you take control of your initial response by generally considering (i) possibly the other person is correct as to their comment, suggestion, or criticism or (ii) maybe there is some fragment or useful portion in the other person’s comment you might need to consider or (iii) maybe the other person is simply 100% wrong.

Also, this power element is not merely academic. My view is that this approach to power allows a person to enjoy life and have a more satisfying reaction to inevitable disagreements, criticisms, conflict, etc., that are a normal part of life.

Finally, two of the saddest characters in all of literature, in my opinion, are Willy Loman in the play Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller) and George Babbitt in the novel Babbitt (Sinclair Lewis). Each of these characters demonstrates so powerfully the sad, unhappy mistake of maintaining such a persistent, engulfing concern about what others think about them. The complete antithesis of power.

A Lawyer Should Help You Attain Freedom and Power (also, this is a book review)

My 20+ years of lawyering bring me to conclude a lawyer’s contribution should be to help clients attain freedom and power. Freedom from otherwise preventable hurdles, conflicts, controversies, misunderstandings, third-party claims [e.g., asset protection], expense, damages, etc. And, power in order to stand confident, strong, durable, and ethically in life. My conclusion also is that 80% of people have wrongly accepted a “go-along / get-along” perspective. This, in my view, is a non-fulfilling response to life. I, therefore, strive to help my clients fall into the other 20%.

Here I make only one brief, personal comment relevant to the following book review. That is, I have never been able to accept the notion of bowing down to anyone, period. For both religious and non-religious reasons. And, this point is why I am so taken with the following book.

The Wall Street Journal recently (12-19-14) reviewed “Inventing the Individual”, by Larry Siedentop.  This is an extraordinary history about the development of individual liberty from a Judeo-Christian perspective. Siedentop is an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford.

Siedentop is not proselytizing a religious view.  [I would not have read this book if this were the case]. Rather, he highlights individual liberty aspects of Judeo-Christian history that I find very well stated.

Click here for the Wall Street Journal review.

I am rereading the novel Babbitt (1922) by Sinclair Lewis

One of the books I have long believed influenced me the most in my early college years is Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.   It was published in 1922, with Sinclair Lewis in 1930 winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.   I reread this novel last week and still find it an exceptionally powerful book.

I will not bore you with my particular experience and reaction to the book. But, the essence, in my view, for any reader is not to let yourself get so caught up on the conveyor belt of work and society with the result that you fail to follow the beat of your own drummer (as best you can).   The pull of this conformist conveyor belt is persistent and insidious, as Babbitt experiences in this fine novel.

Here is a great excerpt from a discussion between Babbitt and his son Ted:

“Well—” Babbitt crossed the floor, slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. “I’ve always wanted you to have a college degree.” He meditatively stamped across the floor again. “But I’ve never—Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”

This is Great Fiction: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

At times I wish I were a psychologist.  In particular, the fundamental questions of why we do what we do, or fail in that regard, fascinate me in law practice.

To that end we all act or fail to act often due to deep-seated, multifaceted features of our personality, including, but not limited to, procrastination, retribution, aggression, fear, obsequence, meekness, absence of a fire-in-the-belly, etc., just to name a few.

As a lawyer I typically deal with the fall-out and consequences of both actions and inaction.

The Sense of an Ending (by Julian Barnes) is a short novel I just finished.  It is one of the best portrayals, and also wonderfully written, on the human condition and how the characters act or not act in a multitude of different ways in response to the circumstances in their lives.

Here is an excerpt from The Sense of an Ending that alone is worth the price for this fine novel:

“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace; Brilliance and Dullness

The framework of The Pale King is based on the late David Foster Wallace’s employment with the IRS as a tax examiner during the mid-1980s.  As an aside, I find the IRS element particularly enjoyable and relevant, as my own stint with the IRS as an IRS Revenue Agent was in the early 1980s.

Wallace’s writing is extraordinary and reflects his brilliant and keen observation of the everydayness (and frequent dullness) of life.  A great irony of The Pale King is that most readers probably can think of nothing more boring than reading about an IRS tax return examiner.

Nonetheless, there are dozens of notable excerpts and ideas from The Pale King worthy of a blog entry.  For purposes of this post, I refer here only to the Wallace’s commentary about dullness (at page 85):

To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

For additional commentary click here for the New York Times review of The Pale King.