“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” I hope you recognize those as words from former President Clinton and did not think I was giving you details of my recent vacation and study leave. To the public, it took Bill Clinton, for whom I have lots of respect as a professional and a leader–not so much as a husband (which is none of my business), several months to acknowledge his infidelity with a White House intern, and I don’t know what he has said in retrospect about other reported infidelities with various other women here and there.
I believe Tiger Woods may have had him beat, numerically speaking, but there was another huge difference between the two men. Tiger Woods called a press conference and acknowledged his errors. This did not win back for him his wife, many of his fans, and any of his spokesperson’s jobs yanked away from him when his wholesome reputation was forever tarnished by several women trying to win fame and get rich by telling about their sexual escapades with the great golfer. Even so, Tiger Woods won back the respect of many when he stepped up to the microphone at a press conference, his own mother sitting in the crowd, and admitted to moral failings.
Same with David Letterman. He confessed rather quickly to his huge viewing audience that accusations made against him by women who worked for him about his having sex with them were largely true. Admittedly, the public doesn’t have the same moral expectations of an entertainer as it does of a political or religious leader or of someone like an athlete who has become a role model for large numbers of youth. It is certainly true that having confessed people may never see you the in the same positive light they once did, but they will generally respect you more than if you continued denying your wrong doings or mistakes and ultimately pretending to be someone you’re not.
If you’ve ever read Margaret Mitchell’s novel or seen the film version of “Gone with the Wind,” both magnificent accomplishments, you know that one of the most important secondary characters is Belle Watling, the madam of the local brothel near where most of the story is set. Only Melanie, aka Miss Melly, and Rhett Butler treat her with courtesy and respect. Even when she wants to make a financial contribution to the needs of the military men fighting for the principles of the Old South, most citizens turn up their noses at her and her money. Not Miss Melly, however. Miss Melly meets Belle in a carriage because there is really no public place Belle could go without being harangued.
Belle says, in essence, “Miss Melly, most people to whom I’ve offered this money have refused it because of how I earned it, and I don’t deny how I earned it. But it’s still good money that can help the cause.” Miss Melly affirms Belle and accepts the money, thanks her and praises her for her generosity, and gets it into the proper hands. Belle didn’t pretend to be anyone but Belle; nor did she make her contribution anonymously. If what she did was wrong, she owned it and accepted responsibility for it. In any case, she refused to pretend to be someone she wasn’t.
The late Virginia Satir was a therapist and social worker who was a pioneer in the family therapy movement and, eventually, became known as “the mother of family therapy.” Here’s a quote from her that I discovered all the way back in grad school, and I still find in powerfully insightful and inspiring.
I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it–I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know–but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am Me, and I am OK.
Those people who never allowed anyone to put them on a pedestal of perfection are in a much better position in general than those who want to be idolized as paragons of virtue. The former types never have to say, “Oh no. I didn’t do that. I didn’t make that mistake, or I didn’t commit that act of immorality.” If someone asks them about a rumored offense, they tend to say, “Not that it’s any of your business, but, yes, as a matter of fact I did do that. If it bothers you, boo hoo.”
Representative Wiener should first have changed the pronunciation of his name to “Wine-er,” and then should have admitted to sending the lewd phone pix he shared with some of his female groupies when first confronted with the accusation. There are those who, while feeling disgust and embarrassment that an elected public servant would do such a thing, would still respect him as an honest person albeit an honest person who is an Android exhibitionist.
Thankfully, most of us don’t have the whole country or the whole world watching our every move, seemingly bent on finding at least one flaw to exploit big time. If we are persons of integrity, though, living completely out of the limelight, we will still not try to lie our way out of some imperfection that someone else discovers.
I’ve had several young couples ask me across the years, in premarital counseling sessions, if they should talk about their previous sexual histories with the person they’re about to embrace as life mate, and this is not often thought of in terms of necessary confession of a moral wrong or a series of moral wrongs. I’d say few young couples these days see premarital sex as morally improper. The reason they might want to tell their future partner is for the sake of clearing the air and starting anew, as it were. I usually say something like this when asked, “For some people the past is the past, and whatever happened before the two of you became a couple is of little consequence to the relationship you are building. If, however, one or both of you feels strongly that knowing those details is an important part of understanding the person to whom you’ll be giving yourself intimately, here is my rule of thumb. If you can talk about your sexual involvement with others before this relationship began in ten minutes or less it might be ok, but if you’re looking at several hours or a whole weekend to tell the complete story I’d strongly encourage you to let it go. Say, instead, ‘My life started when I met you, darling; nothing before that is even worth remembering, much less mentioning.’”
A few thought-provoking tidbits. John Maxwell: “A person must be big enough to admit her or his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.”
Oscar Wilde: “‘Experience’ is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”
Harold Smith: “More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.”
Mark Twain: “Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”
I love, literarily speaking, the twists and turns in the Eve and Adam story in the book of Genesis. I probably make more reference to this text than I should, but it captivates me. God has given Eve and Adam magnificent Eden in which to live; they have great freedom there, and the only restriction is that they must not eat any fruit that grows on the tree in the center of the Garden. You know that the serpent tempts Eve to try a bite or two, and, in turn, Eve tempts Adam to do the same.
From the Broadway musical, “Apple Tree,” the serpent sings a song that develops the extent of his temptation of Eve. Indeed, it would have been tough to turn away. This is what the serpent sings by way of temptation in the production, and incidentally the scriptural story says nothing about the fruit being an apple:
Listen closely. Let me fill you in
About the rich ripe round red
Rosy apples they call forbidden fruit.
What I’m about to say is
Confidential so promise you’ll be mute.
Because if every creature in the garden knows
They’ll come ’round like hungry buffaloes,
And in no time there’ll be none of those
Precious apples left for you and me.
Now in the average apple
You’re accustomed to skin, seeds, flesh and core,
But you will find that these are
Special apples that give you something more.
Why, every seed contains some information you
Need to speed your education; the
Seeds, indeed, of all creation are here.
Why be foolish, my dear?
Come with me
To that tree.
With every sweet and juicy
Luscious bite of this not forbidden fruit
You’ll see your mind expand and
Your perceptions grow more and more acute.
And you can teach him plumbing and philosophy
New techniques for glazing pottery
Wood-craft, first-aid, home economy.
Madam, Adam will be overjoyed!
Both Eve and Adam succumb to their respective tempters and do the single thing they’re not supposed to do. In a little while, God their Creator comes calling to ask why they had disobeyed the lone rule they were asked to follow. When God asks, the blame game begins. Eve blames the serpent and accepts no responsibility for giving in to the serpent’s dare or for getting Adam to share in her error. Adam follows suit.
The truth is both Eve and Adam were fully responsible for the choices they made; tempters are not to blame for the ethical wrongs we do. Temptation is a part of life; advertisers bank on it. Yet, if we give in to a temptation, it’s a clearcut choice; we do so intentionally, and the only person we have to blame is ourselves.
Ironically in this Genesis 3 story, only the serpent accepts God’s accusation without excuse or blame. To refresh your memory:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Notice here that the man, Adam, doesn’t answer God’s question at all. The question as you just heard was simple and direct: “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” That was not a philosophical question requiring definitions, context, and historical precedent. “What really do we mean when we say, ‘Eat.’” “You know, the tree is not precisely in the middle of the Garden if you pace it from the north and the south.”
God’s was a simple question, though a painful question, requiring only a yes or a no answer. That’s not what God got by a long shot. Instead, the man, Adam, answered God’s question by not so subtly blaming God for creating the whole dynamic in which Adam found himself a failure.
The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Another way of saying what Adam said would be, “You know, let’s be clear about this. I’m sure you remember that until you created Eve, nothing even close to this happened. Until you placed Eve in the Garden, and I admit that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her company, I never failed you, not a single time. So, God, aren’t you the one who needs to ‘fess up here and admit that you made an error in creation or placement. You’re God, after all, and you should be plenty big enough to own your errors.”
Now God gives the woman, Eve, a chance to speak for herself, but she follows Adam’s pattern in not answering God’s question at all. She, like her man, more or less blames God for her plight. It was as if she prepped for her responses with Judge Judy’s staff.
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
In other words, “God, if you hadn’t created the serpent and forced us to have to live with the serpent in the Garden, there’s no way this could’ve have happened.” The audacity!
God wouldn’t be drawn into their triangling efforts. Each one was independently responsible for her or his own actions, and, thus, each one had consequences to face. God might have gone much more easily on them had they simply been honest when God asked them each a direct and pointed question. “Did you eat from from the tree in the center of the Garden?”
“I’m ashamed to admit it, God, but I did. I’m so sorry I didn’t live up to the simple standard you established for Garden dwellers. I will not make this mistake again if given another chance.”
I want to stress again, as I mentioned earlier, that not all mistakes are moral failures; in fact, many mistakes have no relationship whatsoever to any morality scale. Even so, some people still blame God for their mistakes.
You jocks undoubtedly caught LeBron James’s excuse-making back in June for the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals. A reporter told the story this way:
In what must have been an emotional moment of frustration and an attempt to explain the Miami Heat‘s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Heat forward LeBron James found the best place he could to put the blame for coming up short. Following the game this is what James’s Twitter account, @KingJames, looked like:
KingJames: The Greater Man upstairs knows when it’s my time. Right now isn’t the time.
Really, LeBron? Blame God? I understand blaming the fans, the coaches, teammates, the weather, and everything else under the sun. Perhaps the pregame music was not what you wanted, the towels were not folded right, all the fans wearing white threw you off or someone put the wrong kind of powder out for you to throw into the air. If you ask me it was because your headband was too tight. I could handle all of that, but blaming God? Not your best move.
Joan Didion: “The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”
Albert Einstein: “People must cease attributing their problems to their environment, and learn again to exercise their will, their personal responsibility.”
The ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles: “It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.”
Denis Waitley: “A sign of wisdom and maturity is when you come to terms with the realization that your decisions cause your rewards and consequences. You are responsible for your life, and your ultimate success depends on the choices you make.”
A business writer, Trent Leyshan, has come up with a little proverb: “Own your mistakes, or they will own you.” I think that’s very powerful and right on point. Own your mistakes, or they will own you. Owning, I think, means acknowledging them, doing what you can to correct them, and then letting them go. Owning up to a mistake does not mean wearing it as a badge or keeping in your self-identity scrapbook for the rest of your life. When you’ve done what you can do to make things right, then that’s it; you have to move on as best you can.
The Apostle Paul was certainly an arrogant sort, and without a doubt it’s the arrogant who have the most difficulty admitting their mistakes; sometimes, marriages and partnerships fail for this very reason. Foundationally, as far as his involvement with Christianity went, he had once persecuted the Christians. As a zealous conservative Jew, he took the Christian sect within Judaism to be a threat to true Judaism, and being as zealous as he was he had every intention of doing all he could not only to squelch the movement, but to snuff out its adherents who, tragically, were his sister and brother Jews. Ultimately, that did not matter to him; his principles mattered more to him than his people. The Romans to whom all Jews were subservient took the conflict between Paul and the Christians as a squabble within Judaism in which there was no way they were going to get involved. Further, Paul had some way been given Roman citizenship so he got some breaks from Rome in that regard.
In the midst of persecuting the Jews who wanted to take up Jesus’ interpretation, or more properly his summary, of the ancient Jewish laws and live according to it rather than all the Jewish laws in which the Pharisees basked, but which weighed a non-Pharisaical type down to depression with her or his religion, Paul has one of the most amazing conversation experiences we know about in the history of the Christian movement. He was terribly confused by the vision he had after he’d been knocked off his horse by a big ole bolt of lightening; in his vision he heard Jesus of Nazareth–by this time executed and entombed, some said raised from death into God’s realm, but a man Paul clearly had never known except by reputation–asking him why he was persecuting his fellow Jews who wanted to follow a renewed Judaism. Ultimately, he understood, as confusing and as painful as this seemed and felt, that God wanted him to become one of the Jewish Christians and carry the message of Jesus into the the Greek world where polytheism prevailed.
As if that weren’t conflictual enough, there was this other thing–actually the camel in the middle of the room. Word got around, and even though Paul was his new name replacing his birth name, Saul, the people in the Greek world to whom he would speak the message of Jesus would eventually put two and two together and realize that he was the one who had persecuted Christians; now he was asking them to embrace the Jesus Movement. Was it a trick? If they did embrace the Jesus Movement, would he turn on them and persecute them as well?
I mean, if Karl Rove called the Democratic National Committee tomorrow and said he wanted to become a Democrat and lend a hand to getting Obama reelected, more than a few eyebrows would be raised. How could it be otherwise?
This being the case, Paul frequently had to own his errors of persecution in order to get any kind of a hearing at all from smart people in the Greek world who didn’t have anyone harassing them regarding which deity or deities they favored from their sacred pantheon. When he wrote to the Philippians, for example, he had to speak to what they knew of him before he could speak to them about his new life:
If anyone…has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Jesus. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain membership in the family of God as Jesus understood and established it.
He owns his failure as someone who persecuted Jewish Christians, but distastefully he does so in the context of much bragging. It’s not the best way to own errors, but it gets the job done now and then.
In a more personal and real way, he discusses unspecified failures in his letter to the church at Rome:
I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Paul makes the mistake here of trying to confess and deal with several areas of personal failing in one quick clip; that doesn’t work. We have to own and deal with our failings one at a time if we are sincere and if we really want to change our ways and fix the damage our poor choices have done to others along our life’s journey.
Here are parts 8, 9, and 10 from a twelve step addiction recovery community such as Alcoholics Anonymous:
8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
A testimony from Deb Ng:
I tried something new this year; I stopped making excuses. Whenever I forgot to do a task or let an email fall through the cracks, I told the truth. I didn’t make up an excuse. In fact, I stopped believing in making excuses. I admitted my screw ups and accepted the responsibility. I apologized and I made amends…Almost every negative situation in my life is my fault. Most can be written off to lack of concern, lack of attention or lack of caring. As soon as I stopped attributing negativity and mistakes to other people and other situations, I became a much better person.