If you have been reading closely, you might have discerned my skepticism of individualism; the idea that the end-all and be-all for determining the goodness of any course of action should be based upon what is first good for the individual. As much as I believe in individual potential, I cannot help but feel that there must be a balance between the one and the many, the person and the people, I and us. Individualism taken too far has no room for compassion, and has no patience for regret. While our culture tends to see a “No regrets” life as extremely desirable, I cannot help but think that without some sense of regret, there is no opportunity to grow beyond one’s current state. “No regrets” is a recipe for walking-death, calcification of capacity and capability. I cannot imagine having no regrets. I cannot imagine a life where regrets–both of commission where one actually does something they would take back, and of omission where we should have done something but did not–were not front and center as major shaping experiences of the persons we are. In regret is realization, and my teacher, friend and constant companion ALS, sharpens regret’s realizations so that omission dully aches and commission recognizes that there isn’t any time to make the same mistake again. Dis ease points to regret and tells you that there is no going back.
Regret is strong on my mind this week, because I have, in spite of my best intentions, paid such close attention to the scandal surrounding Penn State University, its football program, and most particularly the former coach Joe Paterno. The story could have been written by Euripides, for no matter how wise or wizened the person, there is always an opportunity to commit a mammoth mistake, to turn our backs on something that we clearly have to know is happening, and to instead try to cover up our failure through the inappropriate exercise of power, influence, or otherwise. It is the nature of life that the greater the legacy, the more there is to lose. Such is the case for this proud University and the enigmatic Joe Pa with the realization that its great narrative–that good guys can really be good guys–must be revised.
In the past months, Paterno’s legacy as one of the good guys in Division I college sports has tumbled down a rabbit hole of his own making. Since the scandal came to light that Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky used his position and his Second Mile charity to “groom” boy victims for the most lurid and disgusting criminal sexual activity imaginable, Paterno’s bequest to the legacy of his university and football program has plummeted from a pinnacle where ethical and successful are not mutually exclusive; to a middle ledge of recognition that the coach committed sins of omission—he didn’t report and he didn’t follow up; to the bottom feeding realization of callous commission—Paterno knew what was going on and actually interfered in the investigation of his minion. To salt the wound even more, we have learned that Paterno sought an exit contract of great advantage, even while the outline of this horrible story was coming to light and he was being called to testify in front of a grand jury.
When focused only on the situation, the cover-up, the lies, the lack of responsibility and the documented hyper-concern for public relations fallout rather than the harm inflicted on so many young children, it is hard to see this situation as anything but horrific. But for me, there is a huge lesson here, one that relates directly with what I have learned from dis ease about regret. That lesson has to do with transparency, honesty, and the ability to name something for what it is, to speak truth in the face of power, to hear even when you don’t like the message. In a way this scandal goes beyond Paterno, and is instead about the fact that each one of us will face the choice to be forthcoming, to admit that which we regret, or to regret for the rest of our lives that in our lack of honesty came more harm, hurt, pain. In this fact is that small kernel of hope that I hold.
Nothing justifies Sandusky’s behavior and Paterno’s cover-up. Paterno and the University Powers were scared and rightly so. Our gotcha culture should frighten the most honest among us. It offers very little payoff in telling the truth. Admit a mistake and you will be portrayed as mistaken; admit to regrets and gotcha will make you truly regret it. The cycle feeds upon itself until it becomes so harmful, so lurid, so unreal that it is impossible for the person in the moment to see any way out except through obfuscation or suicide or stupidity. These powerful men were frightened of the consequences, and I think that is the point. The realization that you will suffer the direst consequences for honest, transparent communication about the worst thing possible happening, is something in which you can have faith, and whether or not you have stepped forward in truth speaks reams about your strength and faith and character.
Consider, in 1998, had Joe Paterno and Penn State University confronted Jerry Sandusky, reported him to the authorities, come clean about the implications that something like this could take place right under their noses; and then used the power that only a Research One Land Grant University possesses to build a center dedicated to the prevention of such heinous abuse, we would now see Paterno’s confused legacy much differently. Instead, he missed the opportunity to confront a terrible wrong in his program, root it out and insist that the university dedicate itself to providing leadership in child abuse’s prevention. The regrets that those responsible for leading the Penn State community must currently feel should be immeasurable. That such an opportunity was not seized at the time, and that only now in calling out the outrageous hubris of institutional fear and corruption is there any talk of honesty and healing, is beyond regrettable.
In the end, there is no hiding the truth. The more that I live, the more I keep relearning that the things that I do will almost always come to light, and the things that I could have done will become obvious over time. As I lose more and more physical function, I have also learned that the things I cannot do–there is no hiding the physical regression of ALS and the consequences of a dis eased existence—have their own eventual grace. And in such grace is love, blessing, faith, hope, the realization that love unexpressed is love unrequited.
Or, you can in the words of Pink Floyd, “…exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage.”
Each one of us is granted the opportunity to reach past our regrets, our fears, our pride, and try to make things right, even if our attempts are rejected. Dis ease teaches that such legacy, framed by our care and not by our fear, is far more blessed than the embarrassment and humiliation at the time. I know that honesty requires courage. I know that courage requires transparency. I know that not everyone can handle such openness. But I also know that if something good is to grow from something bad, then it begins with light and sun and fresh air and truth.
And then, I think it might be reasonable to say, “No regrets,” both individually and collectively.