On Bravery, Part 1

On bravery and fear

Reading the writings of Roberto Saviano or just the facts about his life can be a humbling experience. I feel a certain prescience because I had developed slight familiarity with the man’s work before the documentary about him appeared on Netflix streaming… yay me. His story is the essence of bravery as well as the end result of fear.

Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, during the 1970’s, I recognize in Saviano’s descriptions all the attributes of a city in the grip of organized crime- the weird mix of terror, pride, and amusement that is shared by long-term hostages. The situation is frightening even while it is absurd- absurd like circus clowns. Also, frightening like home invasion.

Let me be clear. I never witnessed an act of organized crime. I don’t know squat from personal experience. National news reports portrayed my hometown as Bombtown, USA. I didn’t have to know anything personally. It was all laid out there for the rest of the country to see and I had no trouble smiling knowingly in my college dorm when  people blinked nervously whenever they learned the name of my hometown.

Bravery and idiocy

I watched as our region became a national laughingstock by electing a congressman who had… I honestly don’t know where to begin, but let’s say that he was the sheriff and there was ostensible bribery and then crazy press conferences and it involved local crime figures and then he ended up in federal court a few times… This overshadowed the two main plots of life in the Mahoning Valley: 1) jobs evaporated around 1980 and left the region destitute; and 2) before that, the region had become a convenient sparring ground for criminal organizations based around the Northeast.

When I returned to Youngstown around 1990 and worked in legal services, I discovered that one of my co-workers had testified before Congress about organized criminal activity in the Mahoning Valley. He had been asked to investigate and prepare a report, which he happily provided me. Reading about the actual events that drove federal investigation of my hometown was chilling. I have visited often enough in recent years that the cold has faded. Now, I mostly feel sad when I drive through a city that the state government has left for dead.

Before joining, I envisioned legal services like everyone else: crusading young attorneys as portrayed on film. Every case would alter the future of American jurisprudence. You would think that a year of law school would drive out the heroic image of the attorney. Perhaps I did know better, but I still saw it as a fight on the side of the angels.

Bravery in surprising places

I was wrong about many things, but not about that. After I joined the portion of our practice dedicated to supporting employees in the workplace, I found it difficult to fully appreciate the good that I did while there. I was simply too close to the details. Then, I would take a walk through the halls and see other attorneys obtaining food and protection for broken families. I saw damaged souls in our conference rooms given guidance and a little help as they started back on paths to self-sufficiency and self-respect. Those experienced attorneys working on health and family matters were the real angels.

I interviewed my clients and had to wonder about them at times. They came with bundles of issues that I learned to unpack. More than once, I went to my supervisor and said something along the lines of “this person has this serious legal issue that needs our help, but they are incredibly rude/prejudiced/smelly/etc.” The response was always that you take the client as you find them. You don’t get to select them from a catalog.

See Bravery, part two

Leave a Reply