Does one mistake invalidate all the goodness in someone’s life? What about two? Three? And does the extent of those mistakes, either made in a moment of poor judgment or in willful premeditation, potentially constitute an entire undoing of all the good a person has contributed to society?
I’m guessing you’ve heard about the aftermath of the Seahawks/49ers game on January 19 by now, during which NFL player Richard Sherman made a brief rant that spawned all sorts of online chatter. Some of the general public’s reactionary comments were downright appalling. It reminded me that our society as a whole often reacts poorly when The Illustrious Ones stumble. We seem to think it gives us a free pass at eviscerating the person-in-question, and we rant right back. Sometimes online, sometimes amongst those in our social circle, and often with a holier-than-thou attitude. At the very least, we shake our heads to ourselves in disdain, writing off “yet another leader who should have known better”.
I watched the clip – a mere twenty seconds – of a man amped over a win and carrying already-there frustrations with another player into his speech. But what Sherman has contributed to his community far outweighs that solitary moment of braggy bravado. Growing up in Compton, CA, he avoided the city’s notorious gang culture and graduated from high school second in his class. A football scholarship led him to Stanford where he kicked butt on the field and volunteered at Football Camp for the Stars, an event for athletes with Down syndrome. This past year, Sherman launched the Blanket Coverage Foundation, raising thousands of dollars for impoverished students.
I used to cringe in dismay when I heard about a person I considered exceptionally honorable screwing up. King David (adulterer and murderer), President JFK (philanderer and mob-associator), MLK Jr (another philanderer), Lance Armstrong (doper and liar), and some of my own personal acquaintances (various vices) all made the list. It’s hugely disappointing when someone who you want to believe is better than all the rest, someone above everyday earth shenanigans, someone you can hope in, a superhero of sorts, tumbles off the pedestal. And I do believe certain mistakes warrant certain consequences (legal, financial, etc). But is it fair to take someone else’s Big Mistake, zero in on it and demonize them for the rest of time?
As if. As if the rest of us have never used poor judgment or made a big-ass blunder. As if we’re all innocent of bragging, name-dropping, name-calling, purposefully snubbing someone, spewing vitriolic gossip, or egging someone’s car. You and I both know that’s something every last one of us has in common: the human way of messing up.
The biggest question gnawing at me: do those at-our-worst moments DEFINE a person? If it’s a repetitive pattern…maybe. Maybe. If I feel compelled to boast, lie or (pick your poison) on a regular basis, it’s a sign there’s something going on inwardly that needs to be tended to. But if those at-our-worst moments happen on occasion – and they DO – can’t we chalk it up to a case of Normal Human Being-itis? Possibly tired, possibly hungry, possibly feeling unheard, possibly feeling unappreciated…you know, normal.
Several months ago, I read an excellent article in the March 2013 edition of Texas Monthly about Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal and subsequent public flogging. In the piece titled “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, author Michael Hall shares the story of Asher Price, diagnosed with cancer in 2006: “After surgery, Price got an email: ‘Hi, it’s Lance Armstrong here.’ Lance recommended a trip to Indiana to see his doctor but when Price…tried to get an appointment, the nurse said he’d have to wait six weeks. Price asked Lance for advice; Lance emailed his doc. One week later, Price was being examined… Now Price is cancer-free. Like everyone in Austin, he has wrestled with his relationship with Lance. ‘My feeling is, the good things he did, whether it was helping me or inspiring someone else in their struggle, or nudging people to get a checkup or donate money—all of that was real. It really happened, and it helped people. Yes, there’s a stained quality to his victories. But people think that makes everything false. It doesn’t.’”
What I get hung up on is when society makes a sweeping judgment of someone based on their lowest moment. Think of yours. Have you made darn sure a lacking-in-customer-service-skills cashier was aware she annoyed you? Have you angrily cut off another driver in traffic? Stolen a little something just for the thrill? Gotten so sloppy intoxicated you can’t remember how you drove home? Lied about anything? Given into rage and kicked in a door to the point your husband had to pry it open with a crowbar? (Not that I have any experience with that…) It’s one thing if you’re feeling a compulsion to those behaviors (and if you do, please seek counsel with a reputable therapist or support group). But I’m gonna venture out and suggest that most of us experience remorse when we mess up. And then…we turn it around and DO BETTER.
As hard as it is to accept sometimes, I agree with Asher Price. Something as minute as Sherman’s bragfest or as massive as Armstrong’s fiasco ultimately shouldn’t mar years of goodness, courage, determination and generosity. My pediatrician once said to me, as I was just beginning my motherhood adventure and feeling anxious about scarring the two-year-old with my occasional crazy-yell, “Yes, you’re going to mess up but kids don’t focus on the sporadic flops. Was the overarching message of your time with them love? Then they’ll get it.”
When people downward spiral in some sort of royal fashion – international celebrities, hometown heroes or those I consider friends – I’ve started trying to talk Jana McJudgy Pants off the bench and into a more compassionate response: “Slow yourself down, tiger. Don’t make a fool of yourself by spouting off about someone else’s transgression. Listen. Try to understand. Think before you speak.” An ancient proverb suggests, “Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their opinions.” Yeah. I’ve noticed.
Beautiful things have happened by the way of messed-up folks. All those people I mentioned earlier…they’ve poured a whole lotta good into the world. They didn’t let their brokenness (or the fools) stop them from changing the world for the better. I’m not going to ignore what Sherman gives back to his community simply because he got a bit big for his britches in one heated moment. I’m not going to write off what MLK Jr did for our country because he had a weakness for women. I’m not going to pitch out what Armstrong has done for cancer patients because he has issues with truth-telling. Not gonna throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because goodness and mess can co-exist…and they do. In all of us.