The Markers of Progress Are Doubt and Faith

As I paddled in the middle of the Bay of Fundy I looked into the distance and saw the outline of Campobello Island’s shore. The shimmer of warm air hovered over the land, creating a beautiful haze. Land!, I thought. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, I figured it wouldn’t be long and picked up my pace, hopping onto my knees to engage my butterfly stroke. My spirits rose but it was short-lived. An hour later I looked up and to my dismay and the shore didn’t look any closer. It felt like the wind had picked up and the currents were against me. Was I paddling in place? Doubt crept in as the sun began to creep down. If I wasn’t making time, if I couldn’t make time, I would be caught out on the ocean after dark. Suddenly the water looked like a deep blue mass, more ominous with every passing moment.

*The author paddles to shore in the Bay of Fundy

The hard thing about progress is that there’s no sense that you are improving. After putting in a multi-day 21-hour effort to write a mediation memo, the immediate sensation is nothing – or worse than nothing, pain. You don’t feel like you’ve become a better writer. You don’t feel like you’ve levelled up. You don’t feel like you’re any different than you were before you wrote the memo. You don’t even know if you wrote a good memo. You can hear your professor, your mentor, your articling principal telling you to write more concisely, to write point-first, to tell a story. And you grimace as you think about what you’ve done. You want to re-write it. You want to trash it. You know there’s a better one out there, but the Muse has left you for opposing counsel.

On my paddle out I had passed an island of seals, dark gray sea-wolves barking at me and curiously swimming aside me. It was a beautiful moment, giving me energy to frolic with them. But that was hours ago, felt like eons, and now I was alone with no animals, no boats, nothing but the darkening ocean around me. I had one more food bar and a little water. I was sure I had brought enough, but this would not last me long. Did I make a mistake? Would this be my last paddle? I knew I should have bought the Garmin Inreach so I could hail for help. It was stupid of me not to buy it. What was a few hundred dollars in exchange for my life? I took in a deep breath, put my head down, and continued paddling among thoughts of doom.

Feedback is muted. You provide your client with your materials but it is rare to hear a “great job”, and more common to receive criticism. You may fail the mediation through no fault of your own. It’s a trite destiny for trial lawyers: you can do a great job and lose a case, and do a bad job and win a case. But eventually, however plodding, there will be more wins than losses. Every year is another year of a call, another few dollars to the hourly rate, another batch of cases slightly more advanced before. And for you lucky ones, the occasional congratulations.

When I looked up again the sun was just above the horizon, casting a creamsicle sheen in the sky and a rippling reflection on the ocean waves. It was a sight to behold and I became thankful for the journey. Squinting, I could see the lighthouse and the gulls flying above. I was indeed making progress. Home was calling, and I could almost taste the braised brisket awaiting me.

There is nothing to it, then, but to put our heads down and to live in faith that our work improves with every iteration. It is natural to doubt that we progress, but progress we do. The destination is far away, to be sure. Yet with every stroke in the water we surely approach the shore.

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