Joanna Schroeder wonders what it is that makes a person “good”: Is it a life absent of transgressions, or the near-constant quest to become better?
I believe in redemption.
Mostly little “r” redemption, but I’m not ready to totally dismiss big “r” Redemption, either… But this isn’t a blog about spirituality.
It a blog about the notion of “boys being boys” and what it means to be a human being who does bad things.
Most of the time I hate the term “boys being boys”, as it seems just simply wrong in so many ways. Wrong because it implies that bad behavior is innate to masculinity. Wrong because it implies females are somehow above sin or temptation. Wrong because there simply isn’t an adequate equivalent term for girls.
I actually said “boys being boys” yesterday about my sons and their pal, Jaden, who were climbing under trees, over rocks, and getting their shoes and clothes rightly mucky in a riverbed under a waterfall. I turned to Jaden’s mom, Dajana, and said, “This is good for them: to just be ‘boys being boys’.”
Then I thought about what that means. Boys climbing, running, digging and getting muddy is the sweetest embodiment of what it means to be a boy in this world. The fact that Dajana and I let them, and were glad to see them get muddy reflects what society expects from a boy. We expect boys and men to be dirty, to be in touch with the earth. It seems natural. It seems right.
But we want them to be dirty in very precise ways. As they get older, we want them to drool over the cheerleader in the hallways of high school, we want them to be daring enough to risk rejection in asking us to dance in night clubs. We want them to want sex more than us, we want them to be tantalized by our bodies and by our sex. But we also want them to control their supposedly filthy minds. To not stare. Or to only stare a little.
And there is a binary there. We expect little girls to stay clean, to be pure, to be the keepers of virtue.
But the fact is, men and women are all equally dirty. Our hands are dirty, we’re guilty and we’re perverse. We have desires, and they aren’t always pretty. We dream of power and acceptance. We crave validation. And these things are messy. They’re actually filthy.
And we’re going to screw up, especially when we’re young— but not exclusively when we’re young.
All of this was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by two amazing pieces on The Good Men Project today. First, John Taylor’s Picking Up the Pieces, which is Taylor’s wide-open and excruciating look into the heart of a man who cheated on his wife. And it’s not from the perspective of someone who has healed and grown from the experience. This seems to have just happened, and man-oh-man is it raw. Taylor is suffering, his wife is torn apart, and his kids are acting out and devastated by what’s happening with their family.
The second is John Manchester’s stunning commentary on Mitt Romney’s prep school bullying of a gay teen, called Bullying and the Cult of the Tough Guy. Manchester was also bullied in prep school and recounts the event so intimately that both Editor-in-Chief Noah Brand and I came away from the piece with an almost animal need to find the bullies and punch them in the face.
But these bullies are grown up now. They’re grown men like Mitt Romney, probably wearing the same types of suits, probably cruising on yachts or something. Maybe they heard of Romney’s acts at Cranbook and felt like shit, knowing they did the same sort of thing to John Manchester back in the exact same year—1965. Or maybe they shrug and say, “boys will be boys.”
So the question I ask is this: Who do we forgive?
Because forgiveness is crucial to our survival as both individuals and as a society. We cannot live stuck in the mud of the bad things that happen to us, or even of the bad things we’ve done. But the guilt of our transgressions serve a function. Someone once told a friend who was deep in a disaster of his own making, “Sometimes you have to sit in your shit so you know what it smells like.”
Gross, I know, sorry. But it works for me. If you’ve never made a shit-stack out of your life, maybe you don’t know what it feels like to have regrets that run so deep, so profound, that you lie awake in bed and dream of a life where you made different choices. But the rest of us have done something profoundly bad. We neglected our family, we put greed over friendship, we cheated on someone who loved us, we abused someone who trusted us.
But does the act of doing something bad make us bad? Is a man who cheats on his wife—at the moment his mind or heart or body transgressed—no longer a “good man”? Is he suddenly a “bad man”?
Is a man who bullied an already-ostracised boy when he was a teen a bad man?
What distinctions do we make between good and bad?
I’m comfortable saying that both John Taylor’s cheating and Mitt Romeny’s alleged bullying were bad acts. They hurt others. Each, no doubt, did some permanent damage.
But I’m not comfortable calling either of them bad men. First, because I don’t know either of them in real life. But we most likely will never know Mitt Romney, or even John Taylor, in real life. So we have to judge them based upon what we do know. And we’d like to be the people who say, “I don’t judge others!” and yet in many ways we have to… It’s innate to who we are as humans.
We hurt for Taylor’s wife or others who may be involved. And that makes us angry at John. We think of those who’ve transgressed against us, or maybe we think of our own transgressions. It becomes personal. But, in truth, it has nothing to do with us. Hopefully we hear the pain and promises of redemption in Taylor’s confession, and we identify with his humanity. Our forgiveness may be inconsequential to Taylor, who will never know whether we’ve forgiven him or not, but it is meaningful to us.
We hope Taylor will sit in his shit and get to know the stink. Not just in the pain of regret, but in the exploration of how he ended up in such a situation. A naked, bold-faced stare into what created that need for affirmation, for acceptance, for passion or for excitement; whatever was broken inside of him that made him do something he knew could hurt his family. Because the quest to do better, to be better, is what I believe allows a person who has made mistakes—a person who’s done bad things—to continue to be a “good man.”
And we hope that if Mitt Romney did, indeed, commit the “prank” that people are saying he did, that he has done the same. We hope he’s sat in his shit and imagined himself in the place of that teenaged boy with the blonde hair, watching scissors come at his face, watching bystanders laugh and jeer instead of coming to his aid. Knowing that Romney’s a Christian, we hope that he’s prayed with a truly open heart and asked God to forgive him.
And that’s what strikes many of us about Romney’s comments regarding the abuse he and his cohorts allegedly inflicted upon their victim: he claims he doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t remember it. How can there be redemption, how can there be forgiveness, for a sin that one hasn’t truly internalized? How can he come to his god and say, “Wash me clean, Oh Lord” about something he has somehow forgotten?
And that’s what is going to cost Romney the trust of the American people. Regardless of whether he did sit on that young man and forcefully cut his hair or if it’s some “conspiracy” to make him look bad, we don’t believe he can empathize with us, for any number of reasons.
We are Americans. We are an incredibly diverse population: the bullied, we are the immigrants, we are the sinners, we are the cheaters trying to get better, we are the parents working third shift in the factory and trying to sleep in the daytime through the laughs of our children whom we miss so dearly. We are the gay men, the lesbians, the abuse survivors, the combat veterans, the sisters of someone who is addicted to drugs. We are single parents on food stamps, trying to find a way to have a job and still get enough aid to feed our babies something other than chicken nuggets from the dollar menu.
We can look past him being born into wealth, we can forgive him for having been a punk-ass obnoxious entitled 18 year-old, because we too know that we were not—and are not— perfect. We could forgive him… If we believed he could empathize with us. We could forgive him if we believed he had grown over time and developed a compassionate empathy for those he hurt when he was a boy. Because we, too, are broken.
And I hope we do end up seeing some compassionate empathy from Mitt Romney. Because I want to believe he is a good man, and I firmly believe that a man is defined not by the bad things he has done, but rather by the good man he is trying to become.
What we want is not to be plied by the damaging excuse of “boys being boys”, but rather examples of two human beings willing to admit that they are still growing into being good men. Because, in the end, aren’t we all still growing into our goodness?
Photo of dictionary – redemption courtesy of Shutterstock.