From god to pariah — thoughts on Joe Paterno, prt.2

In my last post I told you that in this one I would share with you a way of avoiding the all-or-nothing thinking most people tend to adopt in situations like Joe Paterno’s, where we take a man who has been a hero all of his life and make him a pariah overnight because of one wrong call.

The reason we do this is because of our discomfort with ambiguity. We simply don’t know what to make of a good man who does something profoundly wrong or unwise, and so we dismiss his lifetime of goodness and allow that one wrong move to become the sum total of who he is. And when we do this, we often consider ourselves exceptionally moral. If we are a political candidate, we may see this approach as “tough on crime.” But it is neither exceptionally moral nor tough on crime. In fact it misses the point almost entirely.

People’s discomfort with ambiguity is the reason why counselor-types like me are often called softies and pansies. People come to see us expecting us to help them move forward through their difficulties, and then judge us for not being on one side or the other. Of course each stubbornly insisting on the rightness of his/her own side is what lands them in our offices to begin with. My job is to find another way through the mess. I have to start with reality, which is usually that this couple cannot get along. If I start in with my theories and convictions about how men should do this, or women shouldn’t do that, one or both will simply tune out, stop coming to therapy, and I have missed my chance to really help them. At that point it does little good for me to get all cocky for having really “let them have it.”

So the problem is that when assessing moral situations, people rarely start with reality, which is the human being(s) involved. Instead they start with their own perspective, their own “take” on the situation, and then they impose their take over the top of the situation they are considering. For example:

Rape is wrong.
Johnny raped someone.
Johnny is evil.
Evil people should be punished.

Counselors are taught to not approach situations this way at all. Buried somewhere in our counselor’s education on remaining open to the reality in front of us is something deeply spiritual, though psychology doesn’t usually call it that. We are taught to think more along lines like this:

  • Johnny is a human being
  • All human beings are worthy of basic love
  • Johnny is sitting in front of me at this moment.
  • This human being in front of me is worthy of basic love.
  •  Johnny raped someone. That is awful and has devastating consequences for the victim, and for Johnny, and for many others.
  • My job in this moment is the job of soul care for this broken person who has, in his brokenness, broken someone else.
  • My job if his victim were sitting in front of me would be identical — providing soul care for this person who has been broken.

We are taught that the instant we find ourselves internally sitting in judgment on a client, we are ethically obligated to refer them on to someone who can give them non-judgmental care. Notice that the judgment doesn’t even enter into the equation here — it is, in the context of what we are trained to do — simply irrelevant. Of course we are aware of the evil Johnny has done, but we are aware of it in a very broad sense — not simply in the sense of him having done something bad which deserves punishment — but in the broad sense of him being a human being who, out of his brokenness, has broken others and will likely continue to — possibly whether we treat him or don’t.

Now for the important part — the part most people just don’t get: this does not excuse his behavior. In fact in good counseling he will learn, perhaps for the first time, to accept actual responsibility for what he has done. Both denying responsibility and copping to it in a way that he puts himself on the level of a non-human (which the rest of society is now doing to him) are ways of evading responsibility. After all, if he’s sub-human, then he could hardly have helped what he did. No, the task is to get him to admit to being HUMAN – a moral free agent who chooses both good and evil and who willingly chose to commit this heinous act. So then the suspension of judgment, rather than helping the client evade responsibility, is actually required in order for the client to actually take true responsibility.

Reactionary passing of judgment, which nearly everyone thinks is so critical in morality (both those in the church and out of it), has almost nothing to do with getting someone to accept true responsibility as a human being for a heinous act. It is actually almost completely about soothing ourselves with our own superiority to the one who has “sinned,” and about our ability to determine right from wrong, which we believe the person we consider a monster in front of us cannot do and thus we set ourselves apart from him and do not have to deal with the very real evil that dwells in us as well.

To fully accept another person, you must first fully accept yourself. This means that you must journey into the shadows inside of yourself and see them for what they are. You must refuse to judge them, acknowledge them as real, and know that your worth as a human being is not negated by the bad things you sometimes say and do from these shadows. If you do not come to know this, you will forever believe that you are not worthy of love because of the bad things you have done. But you must do the same with the light that is in you. You must see it clearly, while not believing that it is your light and goodness that make you worthy of love. If you believe this, you will forever be a slave pushing the plow of performance.

This doesn’t mean we do not struggle in our darkness, or that we just wallow in it — it means that we stop running from it, stop believing that our darkness makes us all bad, or that our light makes us all good. We are neither. We are morally ambiguous creatures throughout our lives and until we realize that we will paint ourselves, everyone, and everything either with a black brush or a white brush. This is not reality and we cannot do a thing to help ourselves or any other person unless we begin with reality.