Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder

Chances are that most of us know well the storyline of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  At a low point and feeling as if his life has been a series of unfulfilled opportunities, our protagonist, George Bailey, comes to believe that all would be better if he were never born.  Enter Clarence Odbody, George’s guardian angel.  Clarence grants George’s wish and proceeds to show George how life proceeded as if George never existed.

As we know, with Clarence, George reflects on all events in his life and witnesses the difference he made along the way.  When the druggist placed poison instead of medicine in capsules, George was not there to alert the druggist of the mistake as George was never born.  The druggist poisoned the patient and spent years in jail without George’s assistance.  When George’s brother, Harry, fell through the ice, George was not present to save Harry.  As Harry dies at a young age, he was then not there to save his fellow soldiers during the war.  When George’s father suddenly died, no one was there to take over the Bailey Building and Loan business.  Without the business, the local citizens became forced to wallow in Mr. Potter’s slums rather than construct their own houses with loans from the Bailey Building and Loan.  As an aside, Lionel Barrymore has never received sufficient credit for playing the unlikeable, mean-spirited, curmudgeon Mr. Potter.

Clarence shows George the dramatic impact George made on the lives of so many others.  Perhaps George did not travel as he desired.  Perhaps George never became an architect as he wanted.  Perhaps George felt stuck running a business where he had to worry about saving a nickel on a length of pipe instead of building his grand designs.

Of course, with the benefit of Clarence’s clairvoyance, George ultimately sees the value of his life and wants to live.  He knows he wants to be reunited with his wife.  He wants to hug his children.  He wants to feel Zuzu’s petals.  He wants to be with his friends.  He gladly wants to return to life even if that means he loses his business and is in financial ruin.  Clarence grants this wish with George met, upon his return, with all those he helped during his life now returning the favor to help George himself at his Christmas time of need.  All these friends raise the needed funds, the bank examiner drops all charges of impropriety, and George recognizes that his life dedicated to helping others has, indeed, been wonderful, just not as George had planned.

Each Christmas season when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, I am reminded that good deeds and actions during our lives are noticed and valued by others even where no one expressly acknowledges them.  These good deeds make life better for all of us.  All our actions, however significant or modest, carry consequences and those consequences may be unforeseen or far reaching.  It’s a Wonderful Life makes you reflect on the actions of your own life while forcing you to think about the potential impact of your actions going forward.

However, I learned that my perspective of It’s a Wonderful Life is not the exclusive view of that movie.  While in graduate school, I watched It’s a Wonderful Life when a housemate returned home.  She immediately went into a rant which delved into lecture mode about the horrible nature of this movie.  From her perspective, the only message of It’s a Wonderful Life was that “money solves all problems”.  Poor George had trouble with his business.  He had a marriage which appeared to be falling apart.  He had parenting problems.  He failed to achieve any of his life goals.  He remained jealous of his brother while laboring in his brother’s shadow. Etc.  Nonetheless, upon receiving money from his friends, all ills were immediately cured and all pain immediately relieved.  Capitalism triumphs over all that is horrible.

Wow.  So much for a feel good movie around Christmas.  I was afraid to ask what she thought of any other movie and imagined the responses: The Wizard of Oz – “Woman murdered for a pair of shoes”; ET – “The government deploys all of its power to hunt down one poor illegal immigrant”;  Back to the Future – “Boy uses time machine for incestuous relationship with mother”; and The Princess Bride – “Strong man needed for weak, pretty woman”.  

I found two takeaways from this encounter.  Foremost, I would never watch any other movie with this housemate unless I wanted to feel depressed.  Second, and ultimately more important, this encounter illustrated that your conclusions may well be driven by your starting point of view.

For this housemate, then in her early twenties and freshly minted out of a quite exclusive, small New England college, capitalism was not merely bad, but unethical and immoral for the inequities it created in society.  I actually met her college professor who planted those seeds of thought in the minds of my housemate and, apparently, many of her classmates.  I recognized that my housemate mostly parroted the lines taught by this professor.  However, the professor was the true believer.  Regardless, when viewed through that lense, the conclusions my housemate reached about It’s a Wonderful Life started to make sense.  The money given to George came from the bar owner’s cash register and the druggist’s charge accounts.  George’s friend who authorized an advance of thousands of dollars from his company to help George had become filthy rich through war time production.  The successes of capitalism saved the day for the Baileys.

Of course, this housemate maintained a blind spot to anything which did not fit her narrative.  There was no room for consideration of generosity toward a life-long friend in need.  There was no place for colleagues or friends who considered themselves repaying a debt to the one who helped them along their own path.  There was no chance that the holiday spirit moved some to contribute to George.  The starting point and ending point remained that capitalism was inherently bad.  All facts and factors would be interpreted through this prism.

This experience and appreciation of viewpoint can assist my efforts as a mediator.  In mediations, I often ask participants how they think their case will play out at trial if settlement cannot be achieved.  By and large, the adverse parties agree on most facts.  The lawyers for the participants generally agree about the nature of the potential jury pool as well as the approach and views of the assigned judge.  Yet, amazing disagreement presents itself in how each side perceives the anticipated trial.

To understand these wildly differing views, I sometimes need to consider the starting point of the analysis of each party.  For example, from the perspective of the former employee alleging age discrimination, the corporate employer systematically terminates older employees in favor of younger, less costly employees.  The attorney representing that client may have had a half dozen other age discrimination cases against the same company and believes as firmly as his client that the company intentionally engages in this practice.  The analysis, at least initially, from this side always comes down to age differences between former employees and their replacements and nothing more.

I still need to determine whether these stated positions are the voices of litigants advocating legal positions or whether they are the voices of true believers like the professor and my old housemate.  If they fall into the true believer category, I, as the mediator, must appreciate that I will not change their thinking, at least not in one mediation session (and it is not my job to change their beliefs).  Progress can still be achieved without requesting that these participants abandon their core feelings.  

I need to educate such parties about their blind spot.  The mediator can explain in detail that while the plaintiff may present a compelling case, the corporate defendant also has a story to tell.  While the former employee may be dismissive of the approach, the defense will present its corporate policies prohibiting age discrimination.  The defense will show that the plaintiff and plaintiff’s former supervisors were trained on these policies.  The employer may seek to illustrate a non-discriminatory intent in hiring a new employee with different experiences, skill levels or education to meet the changing needs of the job, each unrelated to age. 

The plaintiff need not agree with any of these positions or factors which will be used in defense.  However, that claimant needs to know that a trier of fact will hear the evidence and render a decision.  A trial is not a living room debate over It’s a Wonderful Life where uncomfortable facts can be ignored or manipulated to support a pre-ordained conclusion.  Each side will present its best and strongest case for decision by a neutral jury or judge.  

George Bailey learned that each decision in life held consequences.  True believers in litigation can hold on to those beliefs and still find a resolution through mediation or settlement which results in actually controlling the consequences.  Alternatively, these “true beliefs” can be put to a test in trial.  Just remember, the consequences may not be to your liking.

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