I feel most alive when I’m doing something dangerous.
These words, spoken by my then-ten-year-old son, gave me pause. What dangerous feat did he have in mind? We were in the car on our way to Hebrew school, pretty much the antithesis of “thrill.” Maybe it was this juxtaposition that drew the thought from his mind to his breath. I believed him. In the time it took for the traffic light to change from red to green, I played out his future as a spy or sky-diver. I said a Mother’s Prayer to keep him safe.
Not me. I do not do something every day that scares me (no matter who may have said that is a goal to live by). I do things for pleasure. For obligation. And out of habit. But not to scare myself. Not even rollercoasters.
But today I am scared. I am on the precipice of my first asylum hearing as a pro bono lawyer, five weeks away. And I’m sweating.
How did I get here? Three years ago, in a fit of manic chutzpah, I volunteered to do this. What was I thinking? I had no experience in immigration law! No trial experience at all! But the country was in the thick of families being separated at the border – remember? – and I had to do something. I went to protests. I visited immigrant detention centers to do “chaplaincy visits” with women who had broken no laws but were locked up, mothers who had lost children and teenage girls who had fled abuse. It was rough, but I don’t know if we accomplished anything by sitting for an hour, talking or listening.
One young mom, Carolina from the Dominican Republic, had been locked up there for 14 months, her children home with her mother, and she needed a lawyer. That night, I told my family about her. My son (the thrill seeker) asked in genuine confusion, Aren’t you a lawyer? I said Not that kind, and thought of all the things I didn’t know about immigration and asylum law. But you ARE one, he persisted. It was so simple.
His plain observation got stuck in my head. So, just to see what was out there, I Googled “volunteer immigration lawyer.” Most non-profit law firms wisely took only experienced immigration attorneys, because it is a complicated field. But I discovered Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, which trains lawyers from other fields to do asylum and other immigration cases. The need for lawyers was too great to limit the pool, they reasoned; any lawyer was better than none. They trained me. They assigned me a case. I met my clients: mom, dad, and four sweet daughters from El Salvador. He had been a police officer; his and his family’s lives had been threatened. Shit got real.
After only a few months, the case got postponed for two years. It felt like a reprieve. While it lay fallow, I stuffed down the fear of knowing this family was in my inexperienced hands.
No more waiting now. Briefs are due this week. I wake up thinking about it, worried that I will miss something important. But their fears are bigger than mine, so I put on a face of confidence to reassure them. I work hard. I ask my mentors for help. I close my eyes and picture us rejoicing in victory in in the courtroom.
Why do we do scary things for thrills? Why do we seek out adrenaline rush as entertainment? And what did my ten-year-old know of this? Maybe we scare ourselves to test our own courage, to build the muscles we need for facing the un-fun fears of life: The uncomfortable but necessary conversation. The honest self-reflection. The mid-life career change. The possibly unrequited proclamation of love. The possibility of falling on your face in public. The not knowing what comes next.
“Manifest,” some would say, so here goes: In five weeks, may the relief of winning asylum be so great that this family finds a measure of healing, and so thrilling that I want to do it again.