One day shortly after I came home with my newborn second child I found my eldest daughter hiding in a corner of her room crying. She was only three years old and I knew that she was having a somewhat difficult time adjusting to having a baby sister in the house. When I went to comfort her she quickly turned her face away from me as if she were hiding some terrible secret. I hugged her and told her that whatever was happening would be alright. That’s when she blurted out that she had “killed the baby.”
I was stunned by her admission but I knew that her confession was not true because I had just checked on the infant who was sleeping peacefully in her crib. When I asked my little toddler why she thought she had harmed her sister she confessed that she had tried to trim her sibling’s fingernails with the little pair of safety scissors that she had seen me use. She cried that she was only trying to help but that somehow she had cut one of the baby’s fingers causing her to bleed. There was so much heartfelt sorrow in her voice that I took her with me to see for herself that she had not accidentally harmed her sister fatally. We both saw that she had only knicked one of the fingers, but otherwise all was well.
I thanked my little girl for being honest and admitting her mistake. I told her that it was good and brave of her to do so. We talked about caring for one another and being truthful. I knew that she was sincerely regretful about her actions but also frightened. I admitted that I should not have left the scissors where she could find and use them. That was my mistake. We spoke of how everyone messes up now and then and that the important thing is never to hide our wrongdoing. I told her that I was proud of her for wanting to help with her sister and even more happy that she had been truthful about what she had done.
We humans are imperfect. I doubt there has been a single person who ever lived on this earth who made it through a lifetime without making many mistakes. We mess up again and again which is actually quite natural. We make wrong decisions, bad choices that affect us and others. The mature individual does not hide in a corner crying over such things. A sign of a truly ethical adult is the willingness to accept blame for wrongdoing. It takes tremendous courage to admit to messing things up, and when someone is willing to do so it is an admirable thing.
I often think that the final message that Jesus left us was about confession and reconciliation. When the thief on the cross next to His begged for forgiveness, Jesus did not hesitate to absolve the man for his crimes and then assured him that he would be rewarded for his honesty and contrition. Sadly we seem to either ignore or forget about that touching scene in our tendencies to cover up misdeeds. We are all too often uncomfortable with someone who speaks the truth and begs for atonement. Thus we witness a great deal of prevarication in society that breeds more and more distrust.
History demonstrates clearly how we all too often behave like children hiding our misdeeds or miscalculations. It is the rare hero who is willing to admit to being wrong. Instead we make excuses for the messes that we make. We want to believe that those who bought and sold humans and then held them in bondage did not actually understand that what they were doing was wrong. We pretend that neighbors who saw their Jewish friends being taken away in boxcars probably had no idea what was actually happening. We find flimsy excuses for our own misdeeds. When we see that rare person who actually stands up and publicly admits to making a mistake we all too often view their actions as weakness rather than courage.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the tarnished reputation for Colin Powell because of his part in urging the world to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. He was convinced that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction that posed a clear and present danger to us all. To this day no evidence has been found to support his contention. He appears to have been wrong and he has admitted just that time and again. He did not hide nor lay blame on anyone but himself. He did not even ask us to forgive him. He simply stated that he had made a horrible mistake for which he was deeply sorry.
We should have taught her children and ourselves about courage and nobility of character from Colin Powell’s example. Instead we continue to harp on his error. He might have whined that he was given false information or that he was only attempting to be loyal to the people for whom he worked, but instead he accepted full responsibility for his own actions, something we have seen so little of in recent times, and throughout history for that matter.
We all know how difficult it is to be honest about our flaws and the things that we have done wrong. We want to gloss them over when we should lay them bare. Perhaps it is because the act of confession and repentance should be a two way street. We have sadly learned that sometimes even the genuinely contrite soul is not able to move the hearts of those from whom he/she is seeking forgiveness. Those who have been hurt must also be willing to accept genuine contrition. We cannot heal wounds if we build walls of silence and lies around us. We have to learn how to have some very difficult conversations that honor truth and restore trust. It is time for courage.