Reflections for 1Ls from "The Crown," Prince Phillip, and the Moon Landing
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
April 13, 2020 Every year at the end of Constitutional Law, I set aside 10-15 minutes for a spiel. I’ve offered rising lawyers general bits of advice, insights from the happiness literature, guidance on their legal education, and more. This year I struggled for reasons more obvious than any solution: we are sheltered in place, socially isolated, and facing a virus posing unprecedented dangers to our loved ones and ourselves. Unlike the Spanish flu a century ago, we also have technology that is both miraculous and daunting. Miraculous because here we are—in our own homes—engaging remotely by video. And daunting because here we are—in our own homes—endlessly flooded with disconcerting stories and data regarding Covid 19 and the various responses. I have no special expertise, insight, or even experience concerning what we are all going through. We are all experiencing this in real time and responding in our own ways. I hold no great wisdom that lets me process this more meaningfully, or even more healthily, than any of you. I might be worse at it. I have experienced no small measure of anxiety and stress. And although several of you have kindly commended my commitment to remote instruction, for me this process has very much been a benign outlet. I love what I do and focusing on the special pedagogical challenges has let me sometimes avoid excessively focusing on other stressors. For what follows, I hope history abates concerns about spoilers. My wife and I are fans of “The Crown.” It is a wonderfully written and acted series that centers on an historical marvel, the sitting Queen of England, Britain’s longest serving monarch. Elizabeth II came to her present position unexpectedly, indeed fortuitously, and at a remarkably young age. She hasn’t been perfect, and the series pulls few punches. But she is presented honorably, as a woman who has very much grown into an impossibly challenging role. I was taken by a recent episode. In this retelling, I don’t believe I’ll ruin any ending, especially since Queen Elizabeth II, even now, continues her reign. Prince Phillip, Elizabeth II’s husband, is presented throughout as a rather troubled character: a challenged husband; an indifferent, sometimes cruel, father; and, to be blunt, not an altogether kind man. On top of that, in this episode, he is suffering what today most might call a mid-life crisis. The episode focuses on his obsession with the moon landing, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping, for the first time, onto the lunar surface as Michael Collins awaits their return to the lunar module. You have all heard Neil Armstrong say: “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” You might not realize that this amply pre-scripted line should instead have read “one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” Otherwise, the clauses are redundant. Armstrong, in fact, stated it correctly; the transmission, slightly garbled, appeared to drop the critical article: “a.” Prince Phillip didn’t catch the seeming misstatement; he was far too obsessed with the mission itself. I’ll touch on three notable scenes: In the first, Queen Elizabeth announces that the Royal Family has been extended an opportunity to meet with the three astronauts as they take what she describes as their worldwide victory lap. Prince Phillip, brazenly if awkwardly, publicly requests a private visitation, one airman adventurer to an esteemed group of others. He’s granted all of fifteen minutes, which despite deeming it inadequate, he all too excitedly takes. The second scene is the meeting itself. Despite having carefully prepared probing technical inquiries, Phillip instead leads at the last moment with something grander: how did it feel to land upon the moon? The astronauts explain that, as with any other complex mission, they were so focused on the long checklist of technicalities that they didn’t have time to reflect on that. The three men then bombard Phillip with a cacophony of questions about what life is like in Buckingham Palace. In the third scene, Phillip conveys his disappointment to the Queen. Elizabeth observes that the tragic fate of these now great public figures is that they will forever fear opening their mouths, worrying about disappointing listeners with their ordinariness. There’s more to the story, and, at least as recounted in the TV drama, Phillip’s moment of profound disappointment leads him to begin a hopeful quest for self-improvement. Most of you are a bit young for a mid-life crisis, and, as for me, approaching 60, I’ve been informed I’m too old. Not long ago, I read a book by MIT philosopher, Kieran Setiya, titled “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.” Although the book is terrific, for the first time in my teaching career, I can plausibly say, strictly chronologically, to you, my students, that I’m not sure you’re old enough. But I’ll give you more credit than that; I’ve seen tremendous wisdom emanating from our virtual space. Setiya conveys a central insight that, for me, pulls together several themes from my past closing lectures: career advice, the happiness literature, and legal education. It also pulls in Prince Phillip, the astronauts, and more ordinary souls, certainly including me. Setiya distinguishes “telic” and “atelic” activities. Telic describes activities with an ending; atelic describes activities that are endless. Law school is telic; becoming a great lawyer is atelic. Reading a novel is telic; becoming an increasingly insightful student of literature is atelic. Going for a run is telic; committing to health and fitness is atelic. The “small step for a man,” telic; what the “giant leap for mankind” promises, atelic. And on a far more mundane, and personal, scale, writing, and later uploading, this very spiel onto my blog, telic; using my blog to communicate what matters to me to the outside world, atelic. You get the idea. Setiya explains that midlife crises manifest themselves as they do, when they do because our younger adult selves—like most of you—focus intensely on the telic. And at your age, with so many in your early- to mid-20s, that’s appropriate. Our younger selves want to set out concrete and lofty goals even if not all of us can plausibly accomplish them. The risk is a later-manifested crisis, generally arising in midlife, that internalizes a sometimes-crushing sense of personal inadequacy distilled through the highly judgmental lens of our past, younger, and more naïve selves. The person experiencing the midlife crisis longs for what might have been, struggling to reconcile a stage of life when so many doors seemed wide open with a later stage when so many have obviously closed. Setiya’s prescription involves learning to focus on the atelic, including recasting the telic as atelic. What steps can we each take that let us work toward something that truly matters, with a concrete, ongoing, and never-ending sense of mission? I think that as lawyers, we can do this. I think that as members of the most social of social species, sheltered in place for who knows how long, we must do this. The pandemic risks frontloading mid-life crises as our younger selves suddenly have too much time to sit, mull, and imagine, even now, what might have been. I believe the distinction between telic and atelic allows us, even now, to supplant the deeply problematic inquiry—what is the meaning of life?—with one that is far more profound—what makes a meaningful life? So, if I may, please allow some modest bit of wisdom from the other side of mid-life. A few ideas: Try not to obsess about the grade you might get on an immediate writing project or course, which is telic; focus on the process of using that class or writing experience to become a better writer or lawyer, which is atelic. Try not to obsess about getting a particular internship, job, or promotion, all of which are telic; focus on your personal development as lawyers and the role that you, as a highly skilled professional, can play in improving the lives of others, which is atelic. This isn’t limited to lawyering. While sheltered in place, try not to focus on a forgone marathon, half-marathon, 5K, or, heaven forbid, tough mudder, all telic; focus on steps even now you can take toward remaining healthy, which is atelic. Find other atelic outlets, including reading, music appreciation, cooking, knitting, an instrument or craft, and the list goes on and on. Think especially of atelic ways to improve the lives of others. Consider on-line tutoring, making PPE, engaging in on-line volunteering. Atelic pursuits will make you personally better at whatever you choose to do, and in doing so, make you better in helping others. That’s also true of lawyering. So now the happiness literature in one sentence: we aren’t great at predicting the successes or pitfalls that will make us happy or sad; we tend too easily to acclimate to our baseline happiness level after such shocks. This implies that the best we can do is find small ways, but also regular, concrete, and ongoing ways, to improve our personal happiness baseline. I’m convinced that shifting our mindset from telic to atelic is a critical step in the process, and there’s no reason to await a mid-life crisis to internalize the insight. It has been an honor to teach you, despite, or perhaps especially given, the challenges we all faced and continue to confront. I wish you all the very best. Stay safe, stay well, and also, and I do mean this, stay in touch.
As always, comments are welcome. I hope all my readers are doing their best to stay safe and well in these most challenging times.
[Special thanks to Bob Condlin for insightful comments on an earlier draft.]