Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
In the Ring
In a fairly recent trial, frustrated defense counsel accused me of coaching a witness. The 10-year-old child had been sexually abused by her stepfather and had witnessed the unimaginable abuse of her mother and three younger brothers, including a toddler. I’d spent significant time with the child, her mother and an advocate, getting to know her and preparing for trial. Despite knowing ahead of time that this particular defense attorney has a reputation for personally attacking prosecutors when her presentations fall short — and I know every prosecutor out there has had this experience — it requires immense restraint to refrain from reacting to personal accusations about our ethics — especially in the midst of trial stress. And the combination of the horrendous nature of the crimes coupled with the contentiousness of the trial left me reeling. No amount of deep breathing was going to slow my heart and un-redden my face.
On days like that, when possible, I try to time-out with a short walk, around the block, up to the “M,” or — if I have the luxury of an hour — to the top of Waterworks Hill, a steep hike that eventually overlooks downtown Missoula, the courthouse and my office. From the new vantage point, the courthouse is as tiny as my thumb, people as small as ants and trial drama all but non-existent. The combination of time, intense physical exercise and the new view — not just of my workspace but the entire beautiful valley — offers just what I need on those days: perspective.
Above the Ring
Similarly, when I am in problem-solving mode and feeling stuck in my head or too self-important, I often google Hubble images, and ponder the size of the universe as I flip through beautiful photos of our planets, our galaxy and worlds gazillions of light-years away. Our Milky Way has an estimated 4 billion sun-like stars and at least 3 million with habitable planets, likely more [MIT Tech Review].
According to Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, our universe likely has between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. The calculation of potentially life-sustaining planets out there is staggering, indicating a formidable number of inhabitable planets. The vastness of our world beyond my courthouse, beyond Missoula, beyond Montana, beyond Earth, offers a comforting perspective that our problems, no matter how daunting at the time, are transitory and small.
I decided to worry only about the pieces of the trial that I could control and let go of the parts that I can’t — like other peoples’ misperceptions, agendas and bad behavior.
Back in court, the attorney was grilling the young victim, something like this:
Isn’t it true you met with the prosecutor?
More than once?
More than twice?
And she told you what to say?
She told you what to say?
I knew it! What did she tell you to say?
She told me to tell the truth!
The jury believed her and, as a result, the child, her mom and her brothers are safe from that offender for the next couple of decades. When I got back to my office and sat down at my desk, I looked up through my window at Waterworks Hill — its big peace sign and ponderosa tree — with some perspective and a rush of gratitude for the bravery of a 10-year-old.
Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.