Chapter 8. Too Much Focus on Things, Not Enough Focus on Commitment

For as long as I can remember, I've been inspired by the great truths of human existence. Sometimes I find them in the expected places: the ancient Greek philosophers, the Bible (especially the King James version), Shakespeare. But often, too, I find that great truths pop up in unexpected places. One such instance came a decade ago, when I was watching a hit film in a suburban Philadelphia movie theater.

The film was A Civil Action, based on Jonathan Harr's book chronicling a lawsuit that was the aftermath of deadly water pollution in a Massachusetts town. An ambitious personal injury lawyer (played by John Travolta) at first seeks to earn fame and riches for himself by winning millions for the families of the victims. But as the case develops, he becomes involved with the families and spends huge amounts of his resources on scientific investigation of the pollution's impact, putting himself and his small firm deeply in debt. As the movie progresses, the search for right and justice begins to consume him until, finally, by standing up for principle, he risks financial failure. Alas, he goes down in flames, and the film's final sequence finds him in personal bankruptcy court.

There, the judge finds it hard to believe that the only assets owned by this successful and once-wealthy litigator are $14 and a portable radio. Incredulous, she asks, "Where are the things by which one measures one's life?" I almost jumped out ...

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