The Sweet Hereafter

As I mentioned on Tuesday, I’m sort of knee-deep in the weeds this week, adjusting to a new job and all of the associated stress and upheaval that entails. Because of this — and as you’ve certainly noticed by now — I’ve temporarily cut the number of posts I usually run. Now, in addition to rooking you out of precious new content, I’m about to commit another media sin by rerunning old content.

But I think it’s OK in this instance for two reasons. First, this originally ran in November 2007, and back in those days I was lucky — really lucky — if a thousand sets of eyes came by on a given day. What that means is that most of you haven’t read this before, so it’s kind of like new content, right?

Second, the subject of this post — what lawsuits and our court system can and can’t do for people — has some resonance for me this week as I transition out of private practice and into public service. I never really made peace with the demands of private clients, and now, in the first few days of my new life, I’m finding that I have never made peace with never having made peace with it. Though I thought it was all behind me, I realize I still need to grapple with the issue of ethics and mortality and the limits of what any of us can do in the face of tragedy. We impose laws and rules on a raw and savage world and pretend that we’ve brought it to heel. But that’s just an illusion, really. The world mocks our efforts to impose order upon it, even if it lets us think we’ve succeeded for brief periods.

So with that disclaimer aside, I give you a post I wrote upon learning that the family members of the Bluffton University baseball team bus crash had filed a lawsuit. I realize that it’s not really about baseball, but I hope it means something to someone, because it means just about everything to me.

The survivors of the Bluffton University baseball players who were killed last March have filed suit. No one is assigning blame yet — this suit was filed to figure out who, exactly, should be sued — but they will. They will despite the fact that the NTSB hasn’t assigned blame. They will despite the fact that, from a distance anyway, it looks like an accident in the most general sense of the term. A tragic one to be sure, but an accident all the same.

But I’m not writing to criticize this and the inevitable additional lawsuits that will come from it all. For one thing I don’t know all of the facts, and the facts matter. More to the point, however, is the fact that I’m a civil litigator by trade, and I have to assume that anything I say about the merits of these particular suits is colored by the fact that whatever objectivity I once had about such things has been beaten out of me in the decade I’ve toiled in this profession. Plaintiffs’ lawyers sue for a living and are predisposed to see liability everywhere, facts be damned. I usually defend lawsuits, so I am predisposed to see liability nowhere, facts be damned. We’re both wrong and biased and jaded and we simply have to acknowledge these facts before allowing ourselves to spew our usual nonsense.

But even if I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the merits of these suits, I do find myself fascinated by them. No, not the legal aspects — if you haven’t figured it out by now, ShysterBall is where I come to escape the law, not embrace it — but the emotional ones. How and why we assign blame. How our personal experience with grief translates into action.

We’re conditioned to accept and move on after the (hopefully) old-age deaths of our grandparents and eventually our parents, but when the unexpected or unspeakable occurs — an untimely death from accident or violence, especially when a young person is involved — we are compelled to do more than merely accept and move on. We must seek justice even if we cannot be made whole. We must assign blame even if there is no one particularly blameworthy. We must seek answers even though we know that answers do not exist.

More often than not we turn to the legal system to sort all of this out, converting questions of spiritual, moral, or cosmic justice into simple allocations of liability based on theories that were moderately well thought out by people who, for the most part, lived and died before the advent of the automobile. Our creaky system does the best it can, but even the winners usually don’t walk away satisfied. How can they when, at best, they are trading the life and love of those dear to them for some money? But what option do we have? While even a successful lawsuit is likely to bring pain and an inadequate return in the end, failing to do anything is likely to feel like wholesale surrender. Even if we know that the all-too-often invoked concept of “closure” is a fantasy, we have no choice but to look for answers. To assign blame. To seek justice. All of this, it seems, leads to a second tragedy. The tragedy of the survivors who are left with no good options after hope and meaning have left their lives.

Watching all of this for the past ten years has led me to believe that maybe the system itself isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is thinking that there is any hope or meaning in life in the first place. That the best we can do is to occupy ourselves with enjoyable pursuits — like baseball — during those intervals between inevitable, senseless tragedy. While this may appear on the surface to be an overly pessimistic view of life, on balance, such a view allows one to spend far more of the time they have on this Earth enjoying themselves, unburdened by the task of having to make sense of it all. To right what we imagine to be wrongs when, in reality, it’s all pretty much wrong and there isn’t a whole hell of a lot we can do about it.

Which brings me back to Bluffton. Given who I am and how I feel about all of this I suppose I’m not in the position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do with their grief, but the fact remains that the seven people who died on that bus were in Atlanta because of some ballgames. I hope the survivors cum plaintiffs remember that as they begin their quest for answers, blame, and justice. I hope that, between court dates, they can take in some baseball games and that by doing so they can either forget or commune with their pain — depending on what they need more at the moment — by doing so.

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  1. JAB said...

    I remember thinking, when you first ran this, that this was a great post, thought-provoking and heart-felt.  No shame in rerunning the great pieces!

  2. JakeSuds said...

    ‘We must assign blame even if there is no one particularly blameworthy.’

    This made me think of the Bush Administration after 9/11.  Reaction to hardship is a test of one’s mental fortitude and character, seeking blame is a character defect that we all have to varying degrees.  I think our individual evolution is determined by our various reactions.

    I experienced the tragic death of a young love in America while I was away studying in Japan.  I wanted to share my misery with my host family, but found out it is custom in Japan to leave the mourners by themselves, so that they can find closure.  This affected the way I have and will perceive death for the rest of my life.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that I think different cultures deal with tragedy differently, and that the tendency to blame is a cultural one, not a universal one.

    ‘That the best we can do is to occupy ourselves with enjoyable pursuits—like baseball—during those intervals between inevitable, senseless tragedy.’

    I disagree.  I think the best we can do is to strive to evolve our mentality and culture over the course of our lives, so that we make fewer poor reactions to stressful stimuli and give better advice to the next generation on how to handle their biz.  That way we’re being proactive toward a better future, not wallowing in ineffectiveness, blame and sadness.

    I agree, lawsuits like this stem from a desire to have closure, but people need to learn that law most likely isn’t the best outlet.  A very American outlet, but imo not the best one.

  3. Melody said...

    Like JAB, I remember when you ran this piece for the first time—has it really been that long?—and thought it was excellent.

    I completely agree about the inadequacy of the legal system to address these wrongs, and I think it’s important for us to realize that there are a lot of potential ways a society can develop to address wrongs, and our system is only one of many possibilities that may have developed, not something inevitable or “right” in any particular way.  I spent a few years in New York City as a counselor and advocate for families of homicide victims, and then domestic violence victims… you can imagine I had a lot of frustrations with the legal system.  The legal system is designed to discriminate between right and wrong, to draw lines and place things in boxes—complex things, like human behavior and relationships.  These things are messy and don’t lend themselves to lines and boxes, and yet we have developed a system that works this way.  And as you said, Craig, there’s no other sanctioned way for people to seek a resolution.

    Having worked in the public sector for a long time, I appreciate your struggles… I have sometimes questioned the meaning of these horrible things that happen to people, and I still have trouble with those who say that “everything happens for a reason.”  How can I claim to believe something that would be horribly harmful and insulting to the people I’ve worked with?  Losing a job is one thing, but losing a child in a violent crime?  How can I instruct clients to find meaning in such a thing? 

    And yet people do find meaning.  I’m often amazed at both the fragility and the strength of human beings.  I don’t really believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that we can *find* meaning in anything that happens, if we choose to do so.  But it’s about making a choice, and addressing yourself to the search for meaning, and what good might you bring into the world as a result of the pain you’ve experienced.  I’ve seen many victims stumble in under a load I can’t possibly imagine carrying, like one woman who lost all three of her sons in separate homicides, and she became a victim advocate and began working with clients herself.  One thing our program tried to provide, and which is in extremely short supply in the legal system, is empathy.  Empathy, and love.  We’ve got lots of intelligence in our legal system, intelligence of a certain kind… but not much compassion.

  4. Conor said...

    Thanks for rerunning this. I didn’t know Shysterball existed in November 2007.

    I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” (he is the author of the more famous “A River Runs Through It”). There are about 180 pages of geography, history and the science of fire to wade through (which will bore the hell out of you if you’re not into that stuff, or fascinate you if you are) but the payoff is worth it either way. He fully explores the tragedy of young, talented men being taken before their time and puts it in a perspective that is more insightful and touching than perhaps anything else I’ve read.

  5. TC Shillingford said...


    Re: “I think the best we can do is to strive to evolve our mentality and culture over the course of our lives, so that we make fewer poor reactions to stressful stimuli and give better advice to the next generation on how to handle their biz.”

    Either you’re interpreting Craig’s line differently than I am, or you really believe in a sort of Spartan, or possibly monastic, lifestyle. 

    I read the “best we can do” line as: we don’t have any control over the tragedies that inevitably occur in our lives.  We cannot always see them coming, we certainly cannot always, or often, stop them, and for most of us, those tragedies are not self-inflicted.  And so, what we must do with the time and actions we can control, is to use them to make ourselves, and the people around us, perhaps, happy.  I don’t read this as a shallow sentiment (“#### it, Dude, let’s go bowling.”) but rather as an idea that we should rebel against the misery we cannot control with the joy we can. 

    The idea of getting better at handling stress is an important one, of course, and I hope I handle the circumstances I cannot control better today than I did five years ago, but I think that’s not necessarily the topic.

  6. JakeSuds said...


    I definitely have a monastic lens that I use from time to time, but it’s not the only standpoint from which I view the world.  I do consciously try to improve myself everyday, though.  Perhaps that’s pretty Spartan…  I am a black sheep for sure.

    I most certainly share your viewpoint, and you should know that my happiness IS progress, self-analysis, introspection and change.  By no means do I think this is best or appropriate for everyone, people can do whatever they want, but I do think it would lead to more happiness overall if people objectively asked themselves why they are grieving in a certain way.  In my world, introspection beats zealousness any day of the week.

    I guess the sentence before the one in question, ‘Maybe the problem is thinking that there is any hope or meaning in life in the first place.’, made me put on my monk hat.  I don’t like the thought of losing hope or meaning in my life, even if I don’t accomplish a single one of my goals.

    I agree with being happy, but not at the expense understanding misery.  They spring from one another… there’s your koan for the day (wink).

    I think this theme is very intertwined with the topic at hand because this lawsuit happened because of folks’ inability to deal (properly?) with their tragedy.  It doesn’t make it any less tragic or their pain any less real, but it does change the coping dynamic.  They are essentially using legal action as a coping mechanism, and I think there are better options.  That’s all I’m saying.

  7. Jason B said...

    “And yet people do find meaning.  I’m often amazed at both the fragility and the strength of human beings.  I don’t really believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that we can *find* meaning in anything that happens, if we choose to do so.”

    Absolutely.  If nothing else, we humans have honed our skills at pattern recognition over the eons.  It really helps our survivability, but occasionally works *too* well – we see pattern, we see meaning, when really there is none.

    And so occasionally people like to “construct” meaning to senseless, random events.  It helps some people feel purposed, and purposeful, which for some is more comforting than being a random, insignificant speck hurtling through time and space.

    Philosophical leanings be damned…PLAY BALL!!!

  8. ralphdibny said...

    I was just recommending The Sweet Hereafter to a lawyer friend the other day; a fantastic book, as are all the Banks novels I’ve read. 

    Funnily, though, I came away from the story with a greater appreciation for these kinds of lawsuits—how the details of any story are necessarily much more complex than the “misplaced grief” narrative we like to apply to it, and how messy and important the search for truth always is.

  9. Chuck 3 said...

    It is great to have a chance to see the value a previously-written piece has on the current landscape. It reminds one of why we sometimes re-read classics, or favorites of old.
    It is no less tragic to see the families of a college baseball team either initiate, or acquiesce to the initiations of lawyers, in bringling liability suits, especially before any rulings about blame are taken. Being cognizant of the searing levels of grief involved, I am also cognizant of the futility of relying on legal process to replace or enhance the grieving process. Months and months of litigation, whether it costs beforehand or not, ends up with a hollow victory, no matter what the financial reward is, and a pile of cold paper currency is paltry comfort late at night if that is the outcome—it still doesn’t bring the loved one back…

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