Awakin Calls » Sue Cochrane on Dec 28, 2019

Embracing Imperfections: Healing and Compassion Through the Courts

Our guest this week is a retired family court judge who learned to embrace the imperfections of her childhood and life through exposure to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, and has used her career and platform to champion a more compassionate model for family courts.  How are your life's imperfections a precious part of your story and vision? Share Your Reflection »


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Call with Sue Cochrane

Dec 28, 2019, 9:00AM PST


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Sue Cochrane served as a judge on the Family Court Bench in Minneapolis, Minnesota for 18 years since her appointment in 1994.  She pioneered a new model on her family court cases which transformed the structure and practice of Family Court into a holistic, empowering, client-centered model. She retired by necessity at age 57 when diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Despite a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor, Sue accepted an invitation to co-chair an international symposium supported by The Fetzer Institute. She helped lead fifty leaders from around the world to collaborate and discover innovative ways to incorporate love, forgiveness and compassion into the contentious divorce process, both in and out of the courts. After the symposium, her article entitled ”Five See full.

Sue Cochrane served as a judge on the Family Court Bench in Minneapolis, Minnesota for 18 years since her appointment in 1994.  She pioneered a new model on her family court cases which transformed the structure and practice of Family Court into a holistic, empowering, client-centered model. She retired by necessity at age 57 when diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

Despite a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor, Sue accepted an invitation to co-chair an international symposium supported by The Fetzer Institute. She helped lead fifty leaders from around the world to collaborate and discover innovative ways to incorporate love, forgiveness and compassion into the contentious divorce process, both in and out of the courts. After the symposium, her article entitled ”Five Ways to put a Heart into the Body of Law” was published in the Journal of International Association of Collaborative Professionals.

Sue had a wide-ranging career as a trial attorney in private practice and legal services before her appointment to the family court in Minneapolis. She was the community-based attorney for the Native American Indian Center in Saint Paul, representing clients with cases involving the Indian Child Welfare Act, disability rights and housing law. 

Growing up, Sue experienced firsthand many of the same challenges her clients faced: poverty, violence, addiction, divorce and sexual abuse. She grew up in a home filled with violence, alcoholism and poverty and was supported by her maternal grandparents. She found peace at her grandparents’ home by saying the rosary, attending Mass every morning, swinging in the grape arbor, and watching her grandmother cook. Her grandmother’s unconditional love healed Sue. Sue was twenty years old when her grandparents passed away. Having lost her source and comfort, she turned during this time to alcoholism to block out the pain. A special song helped her get to sobriety, she later told National Public Radio (NPR).

Sue was later exposed to Kintsugi, which touched Sue’s life immensely and has allowed her to embrace the early part of her life that has caused her much suffering and pain. Kintsugi or Kintsukuori, means “golden joinery” and it is a part of the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi that embraces imperfections.  Kintsugi artisans use gold and other precious metals to fix damaged pottery. Symbolically, Kintsugi encourages embracing the imperfection as a precious part of the pottery’s history, rather than discarding it and getting a new one. Embracing Kintsugi, Sue realized that she just wanted to be whole again, rather than wishing to be a different person with a different history.

Sue’s childhood experiences inspired her to use her law degree and the court to bring compassion, dignity and empowerment to families who suffered in the legal systems. Sue has envisioned a legal system that puts people’s needs first, where each person’s “life” is not simply transmuted into a case “file”.  Having felt initially drawn to a career in art rather than law, a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh – “The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions” – helped Sue to see that her work as a lawyer and in the judiciary combines her passion for the law and art. This quote reminds Sue that she is doing the very thing she wanted to, just with a different heuristic, because bringing peace and reconciliation to conflict is a form of art.

Sue was initially diagnosed with breast cancer over fifteen years ago. As she faced her first cancer diagnosis, while balancing a parenting role to three young boys and her judicial career, she reached out to  Common Ground  to learn mindfulness -- and eventually even gave a dharma talk there in 2016. Five years ago, her cancer metastasized to her bones and brain to a stage four, terminal illness. “Since then, I have not heard her utter a word of self-pity,” says her brother. “She also has not slowed down one bit. She’s taken her sons on a number of trips. She’s organized and spoken at a conference on the topic of “Love and the Law” — an unlikely concept to you and me, but not to Sue. She’s continued to cook and quilt. She’s maintained her meditation practice.” Despite cancer’s return, Sue “founded a community-justice initiative and went into Minneapolis neighborhoods that scared even her bailiff. She sat down with people there, without a robe, across a table in a community center, and listened to their problems, then helped them figure out what they needed to do to get their driver’s license back.”

Sue has been able to live eight years since the terminal diagnosis— well beyond the norm. She has faced ten brain tumors, two craniotomies, a malignant pituitary tumor, and targeted experimental drugs. In these past eight years she has written a blog entitled “The Movement of Healing” and a memoir. Her younger brother Mick, a poet, novelist and English chair, published his "Last Lecture" on Daily Good which honored her life. The cancer has now progressed to her liver, requiring chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

Sue is deeply grateful for having brought forth her passion and visions for bringing love and compassion into the courts. She is also grateful she has been present to see her three sons through their young teen years into college. Her husband, whom she met in law school forty years ago, is a kind and steady presence in their lives.

Join us in conversation with this remarkable human being, jurist, and compassionate leader!


Five Questions for Sue
What Makes You Come Alive?

Creative activity, especially in collaboration with others. Creating a court model that empowers those who us it, with compassion and dignity. Creativity is designing an international symposium on bringing love and forgiveness into the family court, or playing folk songs with a few friends. Having one of my sons in art school stop by to ask my opinion on his latest work. Sending a new piece of my "non-legal" writing to a creative writing journal, or to my younger brother, a writer. Creative activity is a conversation with a strangerI especially love those. Being in the moment, feeling the fullness and newness of the moment, knowing it passes by quickly.

Pivotal turning point in your life?

I vowed never to drink alcohol like my father, who became a violent alcoholic. He lost his legal practice, his family and his life. He scarred us with terror, then left us on welfare, with a mother who was crippled from multiple sclerosis. I was devastated to realize at age twenty-seven that I, too had become addicted to alcohol. I drank to drown the pain from childhood, the death of my mother, and to cover up my painful social phobias. I reached out to a friend who had six months of sobriety and asked for help. He took me to my first meeting and from that day forward I never had to drink again. They taught me a new way to live, based on gratitude and giving.

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?

In college, I was thriving academically but struggling socially and emotionally. I had a talent for learning languages and was known for my writings in French, my major, but I could not speak in class. A remnant perhaps, from the Selective Mutism I suffered in school starting in Kindergarten. One of my French professors, whom I admired greatly, being the only woman in the department, took me aside one day. She asked if I knew what might be blocking my potential, why I could not speak French in class. I blurted the headlines from my family: the damage, the sickness, the poverty and the violence. She said, "I understand that your family life is complex." I loved how she defined the painful circumstances in such a non-judging way. Then she said, "Here is a brochure. You need to go to Paris for this one-month theater study. You need an immersion experience. Your brothers can care for your mother in your absence." I was shocked and excited by her idea. I not only went for that one-month program, but I went back the following year as an exchange student. Mom missed me, but did fine with my brothers. Dr. Tamara Goldstein Root believed in me, and her strong effort gave me opportunities and joys I had only dreamed which have enriched my life.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?

Knowing I have had terminal cancer for eight years has given me a "head-start." I think I have most things in order, but I do wish I could have more time with my loved ones, especially my sons who are 22,22 and 24. I would love to see more of their lives unfold, if possible. I am working on a memoir and getting close to finishing that, thanks to the love and commitment of my dear younger brother Mick Cochrane, a writer.

One-line Message for the World?

Be kind whenever possible. It's always possible. The Dalai Lama

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