Monday, September 16, 2013

Life Lessons from Jury Duty

Finding unexpected life lesson reminders through random daily situations is always a pleasure for me. I was nudged with several of these reminders during a recent week-long jury duty stint. When I received a jury summons back in the spring, my first reaction was probably the same as the average person - do everything possible to get out of it. I had a work trip the week I was initially summoned in May, so I got a postponement.

But reality set in on a rainy Monday morning in mid-July when I found myself in a courtroom with 298 people who had received the same piece of mail commanding their presence. Ultimately I was seated as an alternate and ended up serving because another juror got sick.

The decision we were charged with making would change the lives of everyone connected with this case. It was a wrongful death case involving the driver of an 18-wheeler and an admitted drug user who was the mother of two small children. Bottom line was the truck driver ran over and killed the woman.

The outcome of this civil case would be determined in terms of dollars and cents rather than guilt or innocence. We had to decide what her life was worth and how the company that owned the truck should compensate the woman’s family for the loss of their daughter and mother.

Over this week of emotional testimony, detailed questioning of experts on topics I knew nothing about and a good bit of red herring fishing, I walked out of the courthouse that Friday afternoon believing we had reached a fair decision. Plus I felt thankful for the reminders about good lessons for daily living I got over the course of the week.

I figured out pretty quickly that Monday morning I was in this for the long haul. It was clear the two parties had no intention of settling.

Since phones weren't allowed in the courthouse, I had to be satisfied with only a small legal pad and nubby pencil to doodle with as we waited in the jury room while the lawyers worked on legal issues. This was a startling reminder of just how tethered I am to my cell phone. I discovered it’s now instinct to reach for my cell phone the minute I finish doing something – walking out of a meeting, coming back from the bathroom, finishing a hall conversation.

No cell phones in the courthouse meant I had nothing to do with my hands and no way to have contact with the outside world. I felt paralyzed the first couple of days. But after that, it was almost liberating to loosen that tether and just doodle on my legal pad. It also gave me the patience to think about the details of why I was there and what my role in the process was -  definitely not a bad thing.

I was reminded many times of how fortunate I am that paying my rent didn’t hinge on physically being at work all week. Several of my fellow jurors didn’t get paid while they were serving which meant immediate financial ramifications for them. Most brought lunch from home because the $10 we got paid each day barely covered a sandwich and drink at a restaurant on Main Street.  I also quickly came to accept there is no such thing as a true jury of your peers. If that were true, diverse perspectives would never be heard during a deliberation. The varying opinions, insights, perspectives and arguments that came out during our deliberations reminded me that just because I have a college degree, a secure job and live in a safe neighborhood doesn’t mean I have all the answers.

It was the 20-year-old young man who is working at his father’s body shop who reminded me that there’s more to life decisions than what I see in my little life bubble. This young man was eloquent in his discussions, persuasive in his arguments and confident on his feet during our deliberations. He had all of the attributes of a good lawyer, including good grades in high school. But when I mentioned the idea of law school to him, he said it was too much for him to dream about…his family just could never afford it and he needed to learn the family business.

I went into the courthouse on the first day of the jury duty week determined not expend mental energy resenting the fact I was there. I decided I could make the days interesting by trying to learn what I could both from the case and from the people I was destined to share a small space with for the week.

I was reminded how much I can learn from a situation just by listening, observing and using my instincts rather than mindlessly surfing on the phone when there’s nothing else to do. I never would have picked up a great pound cake recipe, learned about getting rid of bed bugs, found out about a new shoe store on the other side of town, or reacquainted myself with the word game “hangman” if I had been engrossed with my cell phone during the endless hours in the jury room.

I had to accept I had absolutely no control of my daily activities that week. We were told when to be there, where we could park, where we could go in the courthouse and which bathrooms we could use.

The bailiffs were our lifeline to the outside world. They, and only they, locked and unlocked the jury room door. They were our conduit to the judge. They determined if we got candy or crackers at the breaks. They were the keepers of our cell phones and the filterers of information.

I also had to accept that justice is slow. There are so many rules to consider. This process is as fair as it can be when no one except the lawyers really want to be there. Some people are natural whiners, natural nay-sayers and natural downers. I had to accept this and figure how to tune out their negativity without the benefit of technology to distract me.

Everyone affected by this case had already lived through a life-changing situation. By the end of it all, I felt the jury came to a much better collective decision than I would have come to on my own. I was grateful that my fellow jurors listened to me when I had something to say and that I listened to them when they raised questions.

It was a grueling week that made me better by the fact I got through it without technology ...using my instincts instead of Google to answer questions ... and using patience and tolerance instead of technology to keep me engaged in what I was doing.

I walked out of the courthouse late that Friday afternoon more thankful than resentful of the experience and shored up with several reminders of important life lessons I may have overlooked on other situations.

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