Admission. Contrition. Atonement. Reconciliation

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My grandfather was a storyteller. He spun tales for most of his one hundred eight years on this earth. Every episode came from his youth and always had an unspoken moral that not only demonstrated the morays of an era but the characteristics that Grandpa believed were most important in a moral human. 

One of my favorite memories from his childhood was about two boys who got into a fight in the school yard. Things got so out of hand that one of them grabbed a tree limb that lay on the ground and used it as a kind of sword. He scratched his opponent’s face leaving bloody tracks. Then with a last violent thrust the boy pushed the end of the stick into his adversary’s eye stunning everyone witnessing the incident. 

My grandfather thought that the fatal blow was probably an accident but the damage was done. The victim lost all sight in his right eye over what had begun as a petty squabble. Grandpa told us that the perpetrator of the the injury was instantly contrite and began sobbing when he realized what he had done. Eventually the parents of the guilty young party announced that they would pay all of the injured boy’s medical bills and then provide him with a monthly stipend until their own son was able to make the payments himself. They signed a promissory note vowing to care for the blinded soul for the remainder of his life. 

Grandpa went on the explain that personal responsibility was the hallmark of the people of his community. He was saddened that the incident had occurred and felt that tempers had flared in a moment of pique, but he also agreed that it was wrong to simply leave the injured party to his own resources. He greatly admired the initiative of the family that did the responsible thing without need of lawyers or a court ruling. He suggested that if we were all so accountable the world would be a better place. 

I’ve often thought of Grandpa’s tale. So often adults behave like children, skirting their duties or  blaming others for the consequences of their words or their actions. It is an immature thing to to justify immoral actions by accusing others of doing even worse things. That is the kind of explanation that young people still in the processing of developing character use to defend their egregious actions. 

So often when I had to deal with recalcitrant students they wanted to justify what they had done by pointing out that everyone was doing the same kinds of things. Sometimes they accused me of having one set of rules for everyone else and another set for them. They felt beset upon for being caught and held accountable for their actions. They moaned about how unfair things were.

My goal as a teacher and a mother has always been to make teachable moments out of the times when an individual has done something bad. Owning our transgressions is the first step in repairing breached relationships. We cannot stop with accusations, recriminations or punishments. We must demand that those who are hurtful go through a process of admitting their guilt, expressing sorrow for what they have done, and accepting the consequences for their transgressions. Only then can there be meaningful forgiveness and reconciliation. 

I once had a student who had become so angry in a classroom that he began to cuss out the teaching, threatening to beat him to death. Of course we had to find a suitable punishment for him but I also wanted him to come to his own realization of the seriousness of his outburst. As I was guiding him through an analysis of the situation he broke down crying and admitted that he had trouble controlling his temper. He began to outline ways that he believed that we should hold him accountable. He actually described punishments more excessive than what we had thought of requiring him to do. He was not off of the hook simply expressing contrition. The added time spent guiding him to an admission of how he might have approached the situation differently and what the consequences should be was the beginning of important change for him. He eventually became a rather remarkable man but I doubt that would have happened without requiring him to endure all of the steps that lead to reconciliation. Like the young man in my grandfather’s story he took a giant leap toward maturity.

I am saddened by our president and those who love and admire him in that he and many of them seem unable to accept their own roles in the uprising in the Capitol last week. They point to the rioting and looting that sometimes occurred during the Black Lives Movement protests of the spring and summer as an excuse. They insist that we have misinterpreted their intent. They whine that they are always beset upon and hated, so of course they fight back. Then they tell us that punishing any of them will only inflame the intensity of the situation and lead to more violence. It is as though they are holding the victims of their seditious actions responsible for the damage down to our democracy. They beg for peace and reconciliation without contrition. This of course is the response of a child.

We must focus for the moment on what happened on January 6, not other events. Those involved either through direct action, lies or language that incited anger must own the roles that they played in the unfolding of that horrific assault on Congress. Healing and working together only comes after honest admission of wrongs committed, an expression of sorrow and a willingness to accept consequences. 

I look forward to a day when this may happen. In the meantime I cannot wait for the January 20 inauguration of our new President, Joseph Biden.

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