Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg demonstrates the Zen principle “beginner’s mind”

Take it from a master.
Take it from a master.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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We cannot all be giants of the law and culture like US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But we can all follow her lead on how to be. Specifically, on how to remain intellectually spry despite the passage of time.

RBG is a model of physical discipline, of course, as evidenced by her workout video. Yesterday, at a hearing, she also revealed her mastery of a key Zen principle about the “beginner’s mind.”

In 1970, Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, teaching in the US, published Zen Mind, Beginner’s MindIn it, he explained that by always maintaining the mentality of a neophyte, the Zen student never risks becoming encrusted and always learns new things.

Unafraid not to know, the whole world opens to the student, continually. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” the book begins, signaling its fundamental lesson.

Ginsburg demonstrated this principle in action by interjecting with a question during arguments in Opati v. Sudan, a $4.3 billion dollar case about punitive damages for victims of the 1998 American embassy bombings in Africa, which will determine whether the Washington, DC Circuit Court of Appeals correctly ruled that such awards are barred and that Sudan isn’t liable on that count.

Ginsburg’s question was unrelated to the dispute, but her insistence on sating her curiosity is what made the moment such a fine demonstration of an expert remaining ever fresh. “This is an aside to the issue here,” she admitted. “But I have not seen the term solatium as an item of damages before. Where does that come from?”

Counsel was clearly not prepared for the query, but cobbled together a pretty quick response (his stuttering has been omitted here). “I don’t know where it comes from originally, but it—I think—refers to emotional suffering of an aggrieved family member…for instance, a spouse suffers from viewing their spouse…suffering through an injury.”

A more complete answer is that solatium is compensation for a family member’s emotional pain or suffering as opposed to an award for direct physical injury or property loss. It was first used in English in 1817, according to Merriam-Webster (a fact this reporter learned after leaving the courtroom where electronics are barred).

Solatium is related to solace, which is derived from the Latin solari. The term solari also gave us the word consolation. And solatium is basically consolation compensation for loved ones.

Not that it technically matters to the court’s decision, or to Ginsburg’s colleagues apparently. Samuel Alito wasn’t eager to go down any linguistic or philosophical rabbit holes and steered the conversation quickly back to the practical matters at hand, asking about retroactivity of punitive damages under state law.

Whose lead you choose to follow is up to you, of course. But Ginsburg is the only justice with all the street cred, a hip-hop moniker, the marketable exercise regime, films made about her life and pioneering advocacy, an uncanny ability to keep scribbling briefs from a hospital bed while battling cancer, and the temerity to show up in court again for more arguments. Plus that famously rejuvenating curiosity!

Her example is a consolation—a true solace—to the aging. Meaning all of us.