I arrived home one afternoon, a few weeks ago. My wife was standing in the kitchen, preparing dinner. As I walked through the door, she looked at me with a mischievous grin:
“Guess what?” she asked, gesturing to the counter where we sort our mail. “You got summoned for jury duty.”
I looked down at the counter and, sure enough, there was a jury summons with my name on it. Initially, my first thoughts were of all the stories people have told me about jury duty–that it’s boring, that it’s a waste of time, that it makes life at work difficult, that I should do everything I can to get out of it. I thought about how I’m starting a new job shortly, and how this really wasn’t the best time for this type of civic duty. As I thought it through, however, I quickly realized that this line of thinking was incorrect.
When we talk about studying a martial art–especially an art like Aikido, which has its roots in samurai traditions–we often talk about moving beyond simply defending yourself physically from attack, to taking responsibility for one’s family and one’s community. A true martial artist does more than simply step on the mat and train; he or she endeavors to look at the world and asks the question: “Who needs my help?” and then, after finding the answer, does what is needed to help. While serving on a jury is often joked about as a boring and inconvenient endeavor, it still is nonetheless an important responsibility, and I realized that I would be hypocritical if I attempted to duck this task in any way. So, I filled out the questionnaire, put it in the mail, and marked my calendar. I admit that I figured that the odds of me actually being needed for a jury were relatively small.
It turns out I was incorrect: a scant hour after I arrived at the courthouse, I was immediately placed in a jury pool for a domestic violence case. I sat in the jury box, across from a young man who, if the prosecutor was to be believed, attacked his girlfriend after an afternoon of drinking when she started yelling at him in public. Immediately, the seriousness of what my responsibilities were became abundantly clear. Sure, initially, many of us on the jury thought this process was essentially an inconvenience; but as soon as the trial began, we realized the full weight of this, our civic duty. This wasn’t a joke to the defendant, or his lawyer. This wasn’t a trivial matter to the prosecutor, or the judge. This was something that required our absolute and total attention.
In aikido, we talk a lot about ki tests. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s enough, for now, to describe these tests as posture tests. There are a series of martial arts movements that we study separately from the techniques in which they are found in order to test our posture and see if we are correct in our movements. Essentially, ki tests are ways in which we can test to ensure that our movements are correct without simultaneously worrying about whether someone is going to hit us or not. I bring this up because, to me, the entire trial was one long ki test. I found myself going through a variety of emotional and mental states; from an emotional response to the notion that this was a domestic violence dispute, and thus the man accused must be guilty, to scrutinizing heavily the evidence and witness testimonies presented. At each point, finding my own center became critically important, because I knew I had to make the most correct decision possible.
Perhaps, however, the two biggest ki tests came during deliberations. At first, the jury was divided into two camps: a majority that felt the accused was guilty of the crime, and a minority that was not yet convinced. I was in this second category but, more than that, I found that I was the only one of that group that had the ability to articulate why I was not yet ready to convict. To sit among my peers and disagree, and have nearly all of them stare at me in disbelief, was extremely difficult. Yet I knew I had to at least discuss the matter thoroughly, or else I would never be at ease with the matter.
The second ki test that came about during deliberations occurred when we realized that, based on the information we had, the accused was not a bad person. He was young, he was drunk, and he made a terrible mistake. Does this justify his actions? No, absolutely not. But I think we all felt, going into the trial, that we were going to either set an innocent person free or a guilty person to prison. I don’t think anyone anticipated that we would have a defendant that was at a turning point in his life. The entire jury wanted to give this man an opportunity to redeem himself. But it is not the job of the jury to make that decision, and nor should it be. It is the job of the jury to determine, to the best of its ability, what the facts are. This was a real ki test: realizing that the scope of our responsibility was limited, and fully understanding that, sometimes, one’s sense of justice does not mesh with one’s sense of compassion.
In the end, we found the defendant guilty. Drunk or not, he reacted violently to a situation where no violence was called for. And again, I could not help but think about my aikido training. In a brief moment, the accused made a choice that will now haunt him forever. He lost control; he lost his center. Perhaps the loss was momentary; perhaps this trial was the culmination of many different events that finally caught up to him. Regardless, it made me realize that these moments, like the pivotal one in which this man could not restrain himself from responding physically, are why we study martial arts. We study, not just to improve our daily lives, but so that when these moments come we handle them calmly, from our center. I would like to think that, someone who truly understood the principles of aikido practice would never have responded in the way this man did. Most likely, someone with training would have realized that they should only drink but so much. Or perhaps even a person who understood the principles of martial arts training would realize that the person they desire is not necessarily the person that is right for them, and they should move on, preventing any future conflicts from occurring.
This man either did not have this type of training or chose not to heed it at a critical juncture, and the experience of serving on his trial made me realize the importance of civic duty and the importance of applying what you learn on the mat to your daily life.