[Interviewer] Your last post was 2016. Why no posts between them and now?
[Spiritually Bankrupt] Lots of life things, for sure. I got busy at work. Family things. Increased focus on health and spirituality. The election, though, was the real issue with my writing.
[I] Why was that?
[SB] It seemed like the public discourse became a wall of pain, anger, and fear. My milieu is mostly liberal, and my friends and contacts seemed pretty concerned that the world was going to end. I would try to comfort people in person and on social media, but I was ineffective. In fact, I would tick people off. It made me shy away from my writing and from public participation in general.
[I] What were you doing wrong?
[SB] I think it started with the idea that I could console anyone or take away their hurt, that I was somehow strong or intelligent enough to help them to a more “enlightened” position.
[I] (Laughing) Sounds like you thought a lot of yourself! A kind of hero complex?
[SB] Ha, maybe so. I fall into that trap with parenting all the time. The kids basically don’t believe I know anything, and I think that probably extends to everyone else, too.
[I] I think you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re a smart guy.
[SB] Well thank you. That word “smart” is the first problem. Without really thinking about it, my ego probably went through the following formula: “I have an Ivy League education and a law degree; I’ve worked in politics; I’ve advocated in and settled hundreds of disputes; on a personal level I’ve been through adversity, hurt, discrimination, etc.; and I’ve been through all this and have now arrived at a place of peacefulness. I can help other people get there too, both with political issues and in life.”
[I] So where’s the problem with that?
[SB] I think the thing to understand is that no matter how smart I am, no matter how much I think I understand, I don’t understand everything. I have only a limited perspective. If someone tells me something is bothering them, my first response in any conversation can’t be a “oh, you’ll feel better if you do x.” I don’t understand where the person is coming from, what experiences they’ve had, what they know, what traumas they’ve had, what they’ve already tried. It’s kind of an insult, really, to walk in and say, “just take that pill or do that therapy, meditation, yoga, religion,” whatever it is. They have every right to respond, “what, do you think I’m an idiot? I’ve already tried that.”
[I] Isn’t that just normal conversation?
[SB] I think my method of conversation is somewhat informed by being a lawyer. Whenever someone says something, I feel like it should be challenged, that we arrive at the truth by argument. It’s like the Socratic method.
[I] That doesn’t sound fun, especially if you’re talking to someone who is feeling fear or pain or anger.
[SB] Not at all. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
[I] So what did you do?
[SB] When I expressed frustration about the situation, what people I respect kept saying over and over was that I should be quiet and just listen. Rather than jumping in with answers all the time, it’s better to sit with people, to be compassionate. Rather than cutting them off and giving quick advice, it opens me up to imagining other ways of responding, a way to address their needs rather than my need for some kind of simple solution. So I began to listen rather than speak. Apart from becoming a better person, I think listening has made me a better lawyer too. It helps me to practice with humility and curiosity.
[I] Is that why you didn’t blog for so long?
[SB] Yes, in a way. I listened and read and thought. I wondered what I had to offer this new Twitter world.
[I] You must have come to an answer, because here you are.
[SB] Here I am! (Bows with a flourish) For me, the idea of writing won’t go away. No matter what I’ve done or accomplished, it feels like a bucket I still need to fill.
[I] So what will you write?
[SB] Well, I have always loved fiction, and I have tried to dip my toe into it from time to time. One of the upcoming posts I have planned is a story I wrote a few years ago for the Texas Bar Journal short story contest. It received an honorable mention, but it wasn’t published in the magazine. What I’ve really become enamored with, though, is the essay. The form goes back to Plutarch and Montaigne and has recent masters in David Foster Wallace and Arundhati Roy. To me, an essay is about reflecting on my own experience rather than laying down cold, hard facts or giving advice. It’s also a flexible enough form that I can do fun things like interview myself!