I WAS BORN TO BE A LAWYER. I was born in a law firm. My father is a lawyer, my mother was a lawyer, my aunt was a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer, my great-grandfather was a lawyer, and so on back in my family tree. My lineage goes so far back that my father has an ancient edition of Napoleon’s Civil Code because one of my ancestors bought it new to use and study.
With all this heavy inheritance on my back, and in spite of my father’s recommendation, I decided to study law. At first it was not a very good experience. Becoming a lawyer was difficult for me, because my choice was based on the need to earn money, and not on my personal set of values. Arguing about law and rights did not come naturally to me.
In 2012, fortunately I discovered something different and better. I began to understand that I could be a lawyer in a different way, a way that made real sense to me, by helping people navigate conflict to find a better quality of life. Since that time I have met many lawyers looking for a similarly different approach to their work. It seems to me that our profession is reaching a breaking point.
This is the reason I would like to tell you a short story about conflict in Mediterranean culture. I have been studying Greek mythology and have discovered something very important about why we manage conflict in a certain way; why it is easy for us to continue in this way; and why it is so difficult for us to change our mind-set.
Zeus was in love with Thetis, a minor goddess of the sea. He received a prophecy however that Thetis’s (as yet unborn) son would become greater than his father (in the same way that Zeus had dethroned his own father to lead the succeeding pantheon of gods). In order to avoid such an outcome, Zeus arranged for Thetis to marry a human, Peleus.
The wedding of Thetis and Peleus was celebrated on Mount Pelion, and was attended by all the gods and goddesses. Only Eris, the goddess of discord, had not been invited. She was very upset and, as revenge, she threw a golden apple into the midst of the goddesses. On the apple was written the words “to the fairest.”
Aphrodite, Hera and Athena were talking together when they saw the apple. All three of them laid claim to it. Zeus, as the chief Olympian, should have mediated the dispute. He preferred though not to because he did not wish for any one of those goddesses to be upset with him: Hera was his wife, Athena, his favourite daughter and Aphrodite was the goddess of love.
Instead Zeus had Hermes lead the three goddesses to Paris, the shepherd prince of Troy, so that he could decide the issue. The three goddesses appeared before the young prince. At first he wanted to split the apple in three parts, however Hermes explained that it was Zeus’s wish that Paris judge the issue.
Paris asked the goddesses to swear not to have hard feelings towards him. He asked them to take off their clothes to permit him to examine them physically. During the examination each goddess secretly offered him gifts to be chosen as winner: Hera offered him the power of all Asia and to become the richest man in the world; Athena offered him wisdom and invincibility; and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. He chose Aphrodite.
But who was the most beautiful woman in the world? It was Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Zeus and Leda, the wife of Tyndareus the King of Sparta. When it was time for Helen to marry, as many as forty kings and princes from around the Greek world came to seek her hand. Tyndareus was afraid to select a husband for his daughter or to send any of the suitors away. Odysseus was one of the suitors and he proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should retaliate against any intruder and to defend the marriage. Menelaus was chosen to be Helen’s husband by winning a race. Menelaus and Helen ruled in Sparta for several years until Paris arrived in Sparta as part of a Trojan delegation.
As was promised by Aphrodite, Paris fell in love with Helen. Helen in turn, shot by a golden arrow from Eros, fell in love and ran away with Paris to Troy. At that time, Menelaus was in Crete and when he returned home and discovered his wife was gone he was furious. He went to his brother, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and asked for his help. The brothers sent emissaries to several Achaean kings and princes to help retrieve Helen. They had all been suitors and had made that same pact to help the winner if anyone came between the husband and wife.
Many of these kings and princes tried to renege on their promise to avoid the ensuing war, but an oath is an oath and it is not possible to break it. The war against Troy became unavoidable.
This myth illustrates many of the dynamics within conflict. Let me explain:
Zeus’s actions were driven by his fear of the past. Try to think of how many of the mistakes we make, and how many of our conflicts, have their roots in a choice made attempting to avoid fearthat comes from our past experiences? Zeus’s mind-set is focused on the past, not on the present or on the future.
Eris, the goddess of discord is unwelcomed and excluded. As the myth shows, she represents the one who, if excluded from a process, tries to undermine it. In this case, the consequence of her exclusion, and resulting revenge, was serious – ten years of pain and struggle. We can reflect on when something like this happens in a family and how the wound can be felt for many subsequent generations.
The theme of responsibility is also relevant here as in every conflict. The three goddesses don’t try to find a solution on their own. Rather they ask Zeus to decide, giving him the responsibility for the decision. This is just as common in our everyday life. Often, we do not take responsibility for resolving disagreements on our own because the task of dealing with, and understanding, our conflicts is difficult and requires personal reflection and forgiveness of ourselves and others. Zeus is also afraid of the possible results provoked by his choice, and here again we find fear, but this time joined with responsibility. A terrible combination!
Paris initially had the wisdom to want to share the apple. He instinctively knew that picking one goddess could cause trouble. He was forced to judgeand, as before a modern court, the procedure was binding and he could not escape. He decides to use the instrument of a physical examination of the naked goddesses’ bodies and listen to their offers. How do we interpret those offers? At first glance, they seem to be like an attempt to corrupt however, on a deeper level, it seems to me that their behaviour is very like our own behaviour, as lawyers, in front of the court. We make part of the whole story visible to the judge, by focusing on the positive aspects of our own client’s position using the instruments given to us by the law, and our interpretations of them.
Paris’s decision, and the events preceding it, formed the basis for a horrible conflict during which the gods used human beings as pawns.
Often a judge’s decision can resolve the surface legal conflict however not the deeper relational dispute and so parties find a way of continuing their fights. This is what happens when someone else makes a decision that impacts heavily on the lives of other people without considering the underlying contest and without including the people themselves in the decision-making process. Greek mythology gives us the possibility of understanding conflict more clearly and of creating new ways and methods of dealing with it. These archetypes are a natural part of our human heritage. We still live with them and are attached to them. Our instinctive behaviour is to follow them because they are part of the air we breathe.
My vision for our culture is that we radically change our approach to conflict, dispute and disagreement. First, we need to understand why, and where, we are stuck. Then, one way forward is by working with these archetypes and ancient roots to find new guiding points.
MARIA CLAUDIA PEREGO has been a lawyer since 2005. She says: “I always felt uncomfortable with the typical point of view in our profession. Following my feelings I began to study so that I could improve my skills in ADR. I trained as a transformative mediator, at the same time as studying the “mediation through understanding” method. I am a qualified collaborative practice lawyer and I call myself an integrative lawyer. Currently I’m studying to become a facilitator. I love studying dynamics, in particular relationship dynamics within the area of probate and I have created cutting-edge courses for lawyers that wish to change their point of view. I have also written articles about a new approach within our profession in Italy. My vision for our profession is that we bring more happiness in everybody’s life. If you are interested in more information or courses on this approach, get in touch through email@example.com or www.oltrelaleggedelconflitto.it.