Life, I have discovered, is filled with little epiphanies. I had another one today.
A refugee family new to our country and our congregation experienced the tragic death of their teen-age son in an ice-related auto accident a few months ago. It was a multi-car crash and so, of course, has become a battle of insurance companies. The grieving father was told by relatives that he should get a lawyer, and – still “new to our ways” – asked me to ascertain if that was true, and to check out the recommended attorney. (I am humbled by the degree to which members of this refugee community are moved to “ask the pastor” about any number of things.) I did what I could, and ended up feeling that, yes, a lawyer would be good for them, and yes, this guy seems OK.
It’s interesting, however, that as I was checking on the lawyer, I assumed that he would be an ambulance-chasing sleaze-bag. After doing a little research and meeting with him with my friend, I was a little red-faced at how suspicious I had been. This is not to say that he is not, in fact, an ambulance-chasing lawyer (one who works on contingency and makes his income from a healthy share of the settlement – no charge to the client), that is, if you want to engage in the stereotypical labeling of a personal injury attorney. (Yes, yes, I know -- some deserve the epithet. I haven’t become that dewy-eyed over lawyers.)
I serve in an occupation that is vulnerable to stereotypes: To some, I’m the preacher-man; to others, no doubt, a snake-oil salesman. (I want to burst out in applause whenever I see a movie in which the clergyman is a regular guy.) My wife is a schoolmarm; my daughter is (must be) a hair-in-a-bun shushing librarian; my friend, the funeral director, is an ashen-faced, top-hat-wearing vulture hovering at the graveside; my doctor lives on Snob Hill and drives a Mercedes (well, that one is true… Just kidding!). Are you pigeon-holed with a stereotype, dear reader? Have you – as I have – applied them to others? In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” the author relates the tale of how a car salesman’s encounter with a hayseed farmer cured him (the salesman) of making judgments about customers as they walked through the door. (The crudely-dressed hick turned out to be one of the wealthiest clients the salesman had ever dealt with.)
But that’s not the epiphany. Here’s the epiphany (actually a long-forgotten memory) that came to me as I walked out of my meeting with the lawyer about whom I had contemplated such distrust: Forty years ago, my parents’ retirement was essentially financed by the proceeds of a personal injury lawsuit. My mother was struck, as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, by a car driven by a young man who had failed to clean the snow from his windshield. She was laid up for months and carried accident-related disabilities for the rest of her life. She never harbored an unkind thought or uttered an unkind word about the driver. It was a battle of insurance companies. The settlement was modest, but I (later) saw what they would have lived on with their pensions alone, and they ended up doing OK – that is to say, comfortable – with the help of an ambulance-chasing lawyer… I mean, a personal injury attorney.