When I practiced law as a personal injury lawyer, I represented many clients whose lives had changed radically and permanently in a single, fateful day. I often opened my jury trials or settlement briefs with some variation of this narrative: "John Smith left for work thinking it would be just another day like the thousands that had come before it. Saying good-bye to his wife and child, he walked out his front door. He had no way of knowing it at the time, but never again would he pass through that door as the man who had just walked out."
This kind of introduction was effective because it embodied a fundamental existential truth: Change is a persistent force, and ultimately we have little control over how it plays out. We assume our lives will unfold in a predictable way. However, Mike Tyson summed it up best when he said, "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth."
On October 21, 2006, at the age of 45, I got my punch in the mouth. After spending a beautiful Saturday making snow cones at my daughter's school carnival, I pedaled off on a late afternoon bicycle ride. Like the clients whose cases I had pled, I was unaware that the journey on which I embarked was vastly different than the one I had planned. On the last leg of a long ride, an oncoming car made a sudden left turn in front of me, striking the front of my bike and propelling me headlong into the vehicle's windshield. My helmet probably saved my life, but it didn't spare me from a traumatic brain injury and fractures to three vertebrae in my neck. The head injury caused significant difficulties in my vision and balance, and problems with short-term memory and concentration.
I want to say it was the worst experience of my life, and in some ways it was. Yet in spite of the injuries, disability, and pain - or perhaps because of them - my hospitalization and yearlong recovery was paradoxically the best experience of my life.
After nearly 17 years in the litigation trenches, I had become weary and cynical about human nature; but the accident left me deeply vulnerable for the first time in my adult life, and that vulnerability opened up a world of kindness and compassion I rarely had known. It came from the witnesses who stayed at my side as I lay dazed in the street, from the physical therapists who held onto hope for me when I fell into despair, and from the orderlies who changed my bedsheets in the hospital. I was treated with dignity and compassion not because of who I was or what I had accomplished, but because I was a fellow human being in need. This profoundly moving experience restored my faith in human decency and kindness.
And it catalyzed another change. After my recovery - thankfully a good one - I decided to leave the law. I went back to school, got a masters degree in counseling psychology, and became a licensed marriage and family therapist. It was by no means easy to be a beginner again at midlife, but I needed my vocation to align better with the person I had become. Now when people ask me whether I have a specialty, I tell them I specialize in helping people to discover their authentic selves and bring that authenticity more fully into their lives. That's the gift my accident gave me, and I want to pay it forward.
If I were ever to go back to the practice of law, I would want to integrate this important realization into my practice: One's time, attention, and expertise are not just commodities to be sold, but also gifts to be bestowed. I would want to give them wisely, generously, and in ways that truly mattered to others and to me. I'd want to be a lawyer who practices from the heart.
Jim Rosati is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley.