The Time of Our Lives
I bought The Odyssey illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for my first
grandchild—expecting to have the time of my life reading that epic to
“the Principessa.” Epic fail.
Opening it later, the lumbering 19th century translation is as accessible as quantum mechanics and age-appropriate as a keg of grappa. Worse still, the first illustration depicts Odysseus staring out to sea, his back turned to the concupiscent Calypso, only half-draped in a see-through gown, resting her hand alluringly on his sinewy shoulder. It looks like one of those “Get-Better-Sex” ads fouling our newspapers, only jobbed out to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Wildly inappropriate for my granddaughter, this story about Odysseus—or Ulysses, his Roman/Latin name—seems peculiarly relevant to me. Especially at the threshold of the new year.
Homer describes Calypso’s island as a paradise. Calypso has conferred immortality upon Odysseus—what she thinks all mortals crave—so he will never grow old or die as long as he stays there. And every evening the incomparably beautiful goddess leads Odysseus to her bed.
Yet, each morning she finds him—just as in Wyeth’s apt illustration—“in his stone seat to seaward—tear on tear brimming his eyes,” longing for home. And so the gods command Calypso to release him. And Odysseus—rejecting all Calypso has lavished save her guidance that he steer by the four constellations she names—sets sail. But to what?
To his aged wife, his untested son, his despoiled palace, his treacherous subjects, his own death. Why?
Stories are the transport of virtue. And this one from The Odyssey has taught the simple attribute of “duty” across generations for nearly 3,000 years. But there are plenty of contemporary stories that lack for goddesses but nothing else in teaching the same virtue.
Seeking some, Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson suggested contacting Sarah Wolf, editor of The Texas Prosecutor, published by the Texas District & County Attorneys Association.
The oath binding all Texas prosecutors is as instructive for the end it disclaims as the one it claims. Their “primary duty” is “not to convict, but to see that justice is done.” TDCAA’s publication brims with apt illustrations.:
Galveston County’s Kevin Petroff alerts his colleagues to a new statistical analysis of DNA yielding “more accurate, consistent results.” Petroff’s boss, Criminal District Attorney Jack Roady, won 2016 State Bar Prosecutor of the Year due to his commitment “to develop procedures for reanalysis of questioned DNA tests so the public and defendants could be confident the labs are getting it right.” Not more convictions; more accuracy and thus more justice.
Hidalgo County’s Lauren Renee Sepulveda tells how the 2014 State Bar’s Bar Leaders Conference inspired her and colleague Carisa Casarez to not just prosecute DWI cases, but also prevent them. They founded the Young Adult DWI Intervention Program, aspiring to change the very culture of their community. Again, not more convictions; more responsibility and thus more justice.
When civil commitment proceedings for sexually violent predators were moved statutorily from one specific court—where prosecutors specialized in that action—to the counties where the convictions occurred—that lacked that specialization—Walker County’s Erin K. Faseler walked other prosecutors through the process. Again, not more convictions; more consistency and thus more justice.
Other articles profiled prosecutors who dutifully persevered in a brutal sexual-assault-of-a-child case when the victim would not testify. In convicting an Aryan Brotherhood leader when all witnesses were felons themselves. In battling institutional resistance to convict a student rapist, enabling his victim to regain her life.
As Michael Morton powerfully reminded us at last June’s Annual Meeting, prosecutors can perpetrate injustice. But that’s the exception. Our bar’s prosecutors are overwhelming honest and honorable.
Add hardworking. Consider that in 2015 there were 660,696 new misdemeanor, felony, and juvenile cases filed in Texas, all handled by the state’s 3,159 county prosecutors. You can do the math; I’m afraid to.
And there are as many stories of criminal defense attorneys’ courageous discharge of their duty to their clients, often at the cost of public ostracism. Or about any other subgroup of our bar.
“Duty”—however antiquated sounding—remains our profession’s watchword. “Duty” or “duties” appears nearly 100 times in our oath, creed, State Bar Act, Disciplinary Rules, and Disciplinary Procedure.
John Glenn died last month—arguably the Odysseus of his age. Three years before becoming the first American to orbit Earth, Glenn explained that there was “an element of simple duty involved” in his joining Project Mercury. Likely the same “simple duty” that compelled him to fly 149 combat missions in two wars, twice returning his aircraft honeycombed with over 250 flak-blown holes.
These stories of the original and the modern Odysseus suggest a connection between “simple duty” and something else.
Speaking with journalist Bill Moyers, the bioethicist Leon R. Kass identified the Calypso story as one of his favorites. “Time is all you have to give,” Kass concludes. Thus immortality—having limitless time—has no purchase on Odysseus because he then cannot spend the time of his life on and for something. “Without the real awareness of time, we couldn’t make our days count, and we couldn’t make our deeds worth remembering.”
Moyers—channeling his Marshall childhood, Fort Worth divinity training, and Weir pastorate—hears Psalm 90 and begins reciting verse 12, which Kass completes:
“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
I always have the time of my life over the holidays. But with New Year’s, I—like many others—reflect on the time of my life: How I’m spending it, how to make my days count, how to get a heart of wisdom.
Maybe “simple duty”—to the underserved, the bar, the profession, justice—will, like Calypso’s four constellations, steer us there.
President, State Bar of Texas