He speaks the truth, is devoted to the truth, reliable, worthy of confidence . . . . He never knowingly speaks a lie, neither for the sake of his own advantage, nor for the sake of another person’s advantage, nor for the sake of any advantage whatsoever. What he has heard here, he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there. . . . Thus he unites those who are divided, and those who are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words. He avoids harsh language and speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, going to the heart, courteous, dear, and agreeable to many. He avoids vain talk and speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks about the dharma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by arguments, moderate, and full of sense. This is called right speech.
—Anguttara Nikaya 10.176, trans. Nyanatiloka Mahathera
As much as I bristle, I also get excited when called for jury duty. There is something about it that reminds me of meditation: a legitimate and sanctified interruption in my usual routine, a forced interlude requiring me to put everything and everyone on hold. I have only been chosen for a jury once, to serve as an alternate in a case of a piece of a building falling on a pedestrian that was settled before the case came to completion. Jury duty, for me, has mostly meant sitting idly for a couple of days. Given this mind-set, I was cautiously optimistic when told to report for my most recent service. I cancelled two days of patients and prepared for a kind of mini-retreat in the heart of the city.
The courts are a few blocks from where I live, and since I did not have to be there until nine in the morning, my first day of jury duty felt luxurious. Even the wait to get through security did not bother me. In previous times I merely had to sit in a large airy room with hundreds of other citizens for a couple of days while a small fraction of those present were pulled aside to be questioned as potential jurors. The hours had passed quickly, I had taken myself out for several lunches, and the entire experience was restful and benign. I downloaded a book and several TV shows and brought the newspaper along, ready to settle in for the duration.
I was only half listening as the woman running the whole process explained how cardboard cards with our names on them were placed in a metal barrel and spun to randomize them.
“Like a Tibetan prayer wheel,” I thought. “Or Lotto, or the I Ching.”
I was invested in nonchalance as the morning unfolded. I nursed my coffee and opened the New York Times. About an hour into the morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker.
“Jurors,” she announced, “We have our first case, the Walker Clay case. Listen carefully. If I call your name, please answer and then make your way to the front of the room.”
There was a slight rise in anxiety in the cavernous chamber, but I continued to read my paper. I was onto the sports section already, looking forward to watching an episode of Homeland.
“What are the chances?” I asked myself as she began her selection.
She prefaced each name with a number. At number 16, she called for me.
The case seemed relatively straightforward. Six years before, on a rainy October night, a young woman had slipped walking down a ramp in a crowded sports bar and fractured her kneecap. She was suing the bar. The plaintiff in the case, the woman whose knee was broken, was now seven and a half months pregnant, and the case, which had taken forever to be heard, had to be finished before she gave birth. The lawyers wanted to know if any of us knew the surgeons involved, had ever had knee operations, frequented sports bars, ate barbecue, watched college football, skied, or did yoga. I had torn my meniscus once and needed surgery to repair it, but other than that I could only answer yes to the yoga question. It seemed that the young woman, now in her early thirties, was into yoga.
Stories explain how things have come to pass, why people are the way they are, who is responsible for the anguish one feels.
“Maybe yoga will disqualify me?” I wondered vaguely.
The rival lawyers proceeded to question each potential juror in order, beginning with person number one. If there was anything we did not want to say in front of the group, they told us, we could ask to go out in the hall and speak with them privately. One woman said she was a vegetarian and might be prejudiced against the establishment because they served barbecue. That seemed to be enough to excuse her. Many other people were let off for reasons I could not fathom. I was hopeful that eight jurors would be chosen before they got to me, but I was obviously naive. The process of questioning took the better part of three days, and every person in the pool of 40 was examined.
I was torn between my sense of duty and my desire to escape. Most people in the room seemed of a similar persuasion.
“Do you want to serve on this jury?” one or the other of the lawyers would always ask.
No one gave an answer that was an outright affirmative. I had a whole evening to think about how I would handle things; they did not get past juror number 12 on the first day of voir dire. I decided that I would tell the truth but still try to get out of it. I practiced my story in my head and waited for them to question me. When they got to me, I asked to step outside with the attorneys.
“I’m a psychiatrist,” I told them. “I have several patients who have had traumatic losses and are involved in lawsuits. Some are young mothers. All else being equal, I’m likely to be sympathetic to the woman who fell.”
Her lawyers acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, that I might not be a suitable juror. They questioned me a little and then asked if I minded being returned to the jury room. They did not want to disrupt the process by letting me go right away. Did I mind staying a little longer?
I came back and took my seat. I was relieved and figured I would be out of there in a short time. My story seemed to have been sufficient to get me excused. The lawyer for the sports bar, who had been mostly silent when I was out in the hall, then began to question me in front of everyone.
“You’re a therapist?” she asked. “Don’t you get tired of hearing the same thing over and over?”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Did every person I worked with sound the same? Or did someone in therapy tend to repeat the same story over and over? I made a quick decision to answer her as if she meant the former.
“No,” I said, “Every person is different. The stories are all different, that’s one of the great things.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she said gently. “I mean, don’t you get bored by people’s stories? Don’t they just say the same thing over and over?”
It was actually a good question. People do tend to repeat themselves. They have a story they tell themselves and a version they tell me. Those stories define things. They are myths of origin. They explain how things have come to pass, why people are the way they are, who is responsible for the anguish one feels. When people come to therapy, more often than not they lead with these stories. They present them as truth and assume, without really questioning it, that I will accept things at face value. But I have learned to be suspicious. I tried to explain this to the attorney.
“The stories people come in with are usually only part of the truth,” I said. “I’m always listening for what they are not saying. Therapy gets interesting when we get past the story, when people have had a chance to say what they came in with, what they’ve prepared, and don’t know what is coming next. That’s where the mystery lies. I could see someone for a long time and still be surprised at what comes out years into it. The more open people are with me, the less sure I am of what they are going to say next.”
I went on like this for several beats. In the back of my mind I thought I was probably talking too much, but she seemed interested, although I could not understand the relevance of any of it to her case. She nodded her head but did not follow up with much more. I was waiting for her to ask me the more formulaic questions she had asked other potential jurors. Had I ever had knee surgery, for instance? I was looking forward to admitting that I had. Did I ski or do yoga? But all she wanted to know, before moving on to person number 17, was whether I’d be put off to see or hear graphic descriptions of the plaintiff’s knee operation.
“I did go to medical school,” I replied, as if that were answer enough.
At the end of the afternoon, the attorneys took those of us who had been questioned back out into the hallway. They dismissed all but four of us and told those who were dismissed that they had performed their service. They were free from jury duty for the next six years! I couldn’t believe the lawyers hadn’t dismissed me, too. What about my private conference with them? Hadn’t they acknowledged that I was not a suitable candidate?
My job is to help people get past their stories, to get us out of our roles and into a collaboration where we are engaged in exploring the unknown together.
But I had been chosen. There was no one to protest to. The irony was not lost on me: I was being given a dose of my own medicine. The story I had been telling myself—that I had outwitted the system and would be released from service—was only a story. And the prepared story I had told the lawyers, while not exactly untrue, was but a tiny sliver of truth, massaged by my mind to try to beat the system. I thought I had figured things out, but I was wrong. My expectations were not in accord with reality. The trial would begin the following week. I was now juror number five.
I do not describe these events to make a point about the virtues of jury duty. I describe them to say something important about right speech. Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves. I now suspect that when the second lawyer asked me if I ever got tired of listening to people’s stories, she was guiding me in this direction. She did not buy the scripted remarks I had delivered in the hallway. She could tell when a story was just a story, when my motivation was self-protection rather than altruism.
In questioning me, the attorney brought out an important element of my own method and used it to undermine my agenda. My job as a therapist is to help people get past their stories, to get us out of our roles as patient and doctor and into a collaboration where we are engaged in exploring the unknown together. The lawyer wanted something similar from me. It was not what I thought I wanted, but I learned from the experience.
The trial took three weeks. It was like theater. I never could have scripted it. There was an expert witness, an engineer of some kind, who looked like Steve Buscemi and whose expertise lay in reconstructing accidents. There were two orthopedic surgeons with operative reports and X-rays to show to the jury. The plaintiff, pregnant, took the stand and admitted, when questioned, that her father-in-law was her lawyer. But she was very winning. She described how the accident had happened. It was a rainy night. There were football games on the TVs in the bar. She was following the hostess down a ramp. Suddenly she was on the floor in excruciating pain. Drunken fraternity boys, unaware of the severity of her fall, taunted her as she lay on the floor. “Slippery when wet,” they cried, as she tried in vain to stand up. There was an uncomfortable sexual innuendo to their cries.
The case hinged on whether the restaurant was at fault. The owner, a handsome man in his late thirties, did his combative best to explain they were not.
Late the following week, after several more days of testimony, the defendant’s attorney rested her case. She did a good job, this lawyer. In her summation she began by expressing sympathy for the injured woman and said she was particularly troubled by the image of her lying helpless while other customers, all young men, looked down and mocked her. But then she said it reminded her of the Greek tragedies we read in high school, where there was always a chorus whose job it was to speak the truth. “Slippery when wet” was the truth, she proposed. It was not anyone’s fault. Accidents happen. Blame is a natural response when things go wrong and so is a desire to seek damages. But the attorney cautioned us to be careful in our sympathies. I could not help but see more parallels to therapy. It is always tempting to assign blame to another and stop there rather than help someone free themselves from the role of victim.
We went to lunch and returned to find out the parties had settled. That was that. It was over. We didn’t get to decide a thing. The lawyers asked if we, the jury, would wait around so they could talk to us. They wanted to find out what we were thinking, what we would have done; they wanted to know how they did, in our eyes. We were under no obligation to speak with them, they were very clear about that, but they would be grateful. All but one of us stayed.
Those of us on the jury all liked the woman who had fallen, but once we had learned the particulars of the law and were finally given a chance to talk to each other about the case, it was clear that we would not have found in her favor. There was a storm raging outside the night she fell and water was trickling down the ramp, but the establishment was doing all that was required by law to keep the premises safe. It was by no means clear why, or how, she had fallen. It was a good thing, from the woman’s perspective, that they had settled. And the insurance company for the bar seemed relieved as well.
There were no witnesses to the fall that broke the plaintiff’s kneecap. From a legal standpoint, it was a difficult case. Multiple explanations were floated to us as possibilities, but there was no certainty to any of them. The case was settled when everyone agreed on a settlement. There was never a story everyone agreed to, never a finding of absolute truth or responsibility. The resolution of the case demanded that everyone let go of his or her story. Even while the trial was proceeding for the sake of the jury, the two parties were negotiating behind the scenes. There were multiple levels to this melodrama, and holding too fast to any one of them would have obscured the eventual solution.
As much as I had wished to be excused from the trial, I learned from the experience. I was moved that the bar’s lawyer had taken a chance with me. She had not taken the story I presented her at face value. If she had, she would have jettisoned me from the jury pool right away. She had listened to me, had not challenged me to my face but kept me in the game. She refused to believe my narrative and, instead, played to my capacity to be open. In so doing, she reminded me of one of the most important aspects of my work.
There are no juries in psychotherapy and no choruses to chant the truth. There are grievances we cling to and narratives we weave to try to understand ourselves. There is often a desire for retribution or a need to blame, and there are certainly many occasions when this is completely justified. If I were a judge, I would want to find in my patients’ favor almost all of the time. But validation of suffering is really only the beginning of a successful therapy. Affirmation is important— there are many times when people have suffered but are unwilling to admit the extent of their pain—but so is the discovery that one is more than one’s story. This is not advice I could actually give many people in the midst of therapy—but it is my version of right speech nonetheless. The point of telling one’s story in therapy is to be released from the hold it has over you, to set yourself free, not to reinforce the way it defines you. If there is one thing I have learned from my years as a Buddhist therapist, it is that we need not be limited by our stories. We are much more mysterious than they are.