By Inge Van der Cruysse
Taught by his parents that there is no personal or professional success without self-care and without caring for others, Justice Steven David, 106th justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, became a Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program volunteer on Day One of his tenure on the court. On active duty in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, he learned that esprit de corps and loyalty to one’s fellow soldier were vital for the success of his unit’s missions and each member’s survival. The same applies in the legal profession: “Who would not want to help a colleague to save their career, and in some cases, their life? That is not a sacrifice; that is showing you care.” Justice David lives Booker T. Washington’s motto — those who are happiest are those who do the most for others — because he cares.
Talking about what motivates him to be a JLAP volunteer, Justice David pointed out parallels in his legal and military career paths. In both, ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary things: solving problems, working in the midst of conflict and making decisions that affect lives. We set high expectations for ourselves. Failure is not an option — “a noble but unrealistic goal,” he said. In his own career, the decision to run for Circuit Court judge was a pivotal moment. He wanted to help children in the juvenile system build self-esteem and believe in their self-worth. Those cases were hard for both the judges and attorneys and required a realistic management of expectations not to take that hurt home.
The concern that exposure of our vulnerabilities might lead to loss of reputation is real in our profession. It stops us from reaching out to seek help from colleagues when we struggle. Mental health issues that pervade work and personal life are often the result. Justice David regrets that fear of failure — not uncommon to successful leaders — may stop accomplished attorneys and judges from reaching their full potential. He wishes he had trademarked “it’s OK not to be OK,” now the title of a song released by Marshmello and Demi Lovato in 2020 for World Suicide Prevention Day. Its thoughtful lyrics and catchy tune would make it a perfect JLAP jingle:
When you’re high on emotion
And you’re losing your focus
And you feel too exhausted to pray
Don’t get lost in the moment
Or give up when you’re closest,
All you need is somebody to say
It’s OK not to be OK (repeat)
When you’re down and you feel ashamed
It’s OK not to be OK
When speaking to lawyers, Justice David encourages those in the audience to address their vulnerabilities and talk about them or seek help for them, but also to manage expectations. He takes to heart the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
Since he became a JLAP volunteer, Justice David has watched JLAP, with the support of the court, lead the charge in efforts to destigmatize mental health challenges that affect the profession. It offers more extensive services and programs and a place where those who reach out for help feel safe. JLAP has also brought attorney and judge well-being to the center of the conversation on professionalism. Justice David himself has talked on behalf of JLAP at many CLEs. Most recently he was the closer in “Mindful Mondays,” a series developed by JLAP for the Indiana State Bar Association on attorney well-being during the global pandemic. His frankness about the need for self-care and the need to reach out to others reminds one of the words of Maya Angelou, who taught him “that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And that is exactly what these presentations give the audience: We are expected to aim high, but with practical information and a good laugh along the way, we mostly come away re-energized and have a bit more of a spring in our step.
Any tips for coping with so much loss from COVID-19 — loss of loved ones, of health, of employment, of opportunities to be with family, friends and colleagues? While under COVID-19 restrictions, Justice David has tried to simplify life. One suggestion is easy to adopt: sort endless to-do lists into two buckets, one with the label “this sucks and I can’t do it,” and the other “this sucks but I can do it.” The challenge is to get as much as possible into the second bucket and stay away from the first bucket, as putting anything in it will make you just plain miserable and feel worse.
Justice David advises us to be honest with ourselves, to look at what we have going for us and to manage our expectations. Citing former Indiana University and Indiana Pacers basketball star Victor Oladipo, David encourages us to “find our triumphs, small or big.” Try not to compare your life with those of others whose lives you want to emulate. We do not know their challenges. Focus on your own life and on what is in your power to change: yesterday’s failures are in the past, today you have the chance to do better and concentrate on where you intend to be tomorrow. If you want to overcome anything in life, try to break it down in parts, learn from failure and start over.
Justice David is optimistic but not naive. He is a positive realist, not fearful of acknowledging his own challenges. In fact, he considers that a strength. And in doing so, he makes time to help others without judgment. At the close of our conversation, I asked him — knowing his love for country music — what song he would leave us with. He chose Eric Church’s “Some of It,” a song that humbly attests that failure leads to a better life:
Some of it you learn the hard way
Some of it you read on a page
Some of it comes from heartbreak
Most of it comes with age
And none of it ever comes easy
A bunch of it you maybe can’t use
I know I don’t probably know what I think I do
But there’s somethin’ to
Some of it
Be good to yourself so you can be great to others and do more!•
• Inge Van der Cruysse is secretary of the JLAP Committee and a lecturer of law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Opinions expressed are those of the author.