From god to pariah — thoughts on Joe Paterno, prt.1

I don’t know anything about sports. In fact I know less than nothing about sports. So until a week or so ago, I am not sure if I had ever even heard of Joe Paterno. But I have studied up on this story a little bit. The reactions I am hearing from people demonstrate how uncomfortable society is with moral ambiguity. You might say, “This is not ambiguous at all — what he did was clearly wrong.” That’s not my point and I’m not arguing that Paterno did everything properly. But this guy has gone from being a god in the sports world to having his name removed from the NCAA championship trophy. He is a pariah.

But as far as I’m concerned, in some ways Paterno still is a hero.

His life has had an incalculable impact for good on tens of thousands of people, and I don’t believe that’s because he was totally full of shit and pretending to be human his entire life when he was really some kind of monster. His story is like the story of many people, in that at the core of his being is a very deep brokenness that sometimes erupts into what at its center it truly is: a tendency to look the other way, to make wrong calls even when we’ve spent our lives making right ones, etc. Did Paterno make the wrong call? Absolutely. Can we call a spade a spade? Yep. Does that invalidate his entire life and the very real contributions he has made? Not at all.

Here’s the truth: our society has very little ability to process moral ambiguity and so, after being nearly worshiped as God all of these years, he will now be vilified in the press. We can’t stand or see the ambiguity in ourselves and so we cannot stand/see it in others. This of course does not justify any wrongdoing but of course the point is precisely that we don’t know how to accept immorality alongside morality and consider them both to be equally real. If we believe someone is good and then find out they did something really bad, we tend to reject their goodness as a facade. If we believe someone is bad and then find out about the good things they have done, we tend to ignore the good things almost completely and continue to believe that the bad things are the “truth” about this person.

This is simplistic and false. We are all a mixture of very good and very bad things. You know you have acted shamefully at times, right? Does this invalidate the good things you have said and done? Of course not. It just means you’re human. Is that an excuse for the wrongs you have done? Of course not. But it is the basic reality. You have done wrong because you are a mixture of good and bad and you always will be. But some people, in responding to columnists who have said the kinds of things I am saying, have expressed the sentiment that they hope the writers’ children are sexually molested. In expressing their outrage toward Paterno’s passive role in the abuse of these children, they have actively wished abuse on other children. Does this make sense? It does not. But it does show how the only thing we love more in our society than propping up a hero is watching them fall. And it shows how the solution to evil is not to pass our judgments and reject it so vehemently, for in our vehemence we simply become like that which we reject. The solution to evil and darkness is to accept them, to set them in perspective, right next to goodness and light, where they belong. It is not to hold bad things at arms length, it is to look at evil closely enough to see it in ourselves, so that we can truthfully see the light that comes with it. For there can never be any shadows without light. Let that mystery get its arms around you a little bit. Your darkness is the result of your light. It comes along with it. You can never have one without the other. The Eastern ideas of Yin and Yang bear witness to this, as does Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the tares.

In my next post I want to show you an entirely different way of thinking. It is the way the best counselors and moral teachers think, and it is able to hold the tension between light and darkness, acknowledge that they are both real, and move forward without having to make everything only one way.