I have had many students who foolishly engaged in bad behaviors that could not be overlooked. One of my favorite young men disappointed me greatly when I learned that he had been stealing from other students and from the school. The revelation of his crimes came just after Christmas one year when another student came to ask me for help in finding a phone that he had received as a gift during the holidays. It had been quite an expense for his parents so he was notably upset that he had lost it so soon.
I addressed the other students about the issue and urged them to help find the missing phone. I tended to believe that the owner had simply left it somewhere. I was not quick to think that somebody had stolen it, but I would soon be proven wrong. The brother of the student whom I liked so very much, brought the phone to me asking that I not delve into determining where it had been. His nervous behavior made me suspicious, and as I pushed him to provide me with more details I learned that he had seen it in his sibling’s room. Further investigation revealed that the phone was only one item of many that had been stolen over time. I almost cried as I told the principal of the school what I had learned because I knew that the student in whom I had put so much faith had let us all down and would have to face the consequences.
I vividly remember sitting with the student turned thief while we both waited for his mother to come to the school for an investigation into how deep his crimes had been. He was crying in fear of what was to come while I sat silently. Eventually he blurted out that he knew that I now hated him in a voice that sounded like a wounded animal. I was able to truthfully tell him that I would never hate him, but that I genuinely hated the actions he had chosen to take in stealing repeatedly. I was willing to forgive his transgressions, but not to excuse them.
I fear that in our society we too often mix up the concepts of forgiveness versus making excuses for bad behaviors. We let people off the hook when they have been hurtful or dishonest by mouthing excuses for what they have done. If we love a sinner, we hold them responsible for their actions because of that love.
For several years I worked in a school whose mantra was “No Excuses.” I learned that even that idea was somewhat flawed because the reality of life is that there are indeed situations that are not so clearly black and white. A student whose parent died certainly had a valid excuse for not being up to par. A teacher who had a wreck on the way to work needed to be excused for being late. In fact we have all had moments when we let someone down because of overwhelming circumstances in our daily lives.
The idea of having no excuses actually applies to long term use of rationalizations of bad traits. An unwillingness to change or work hard or do penance simply because of bad breaks does not give someone a get out of jail free card. Sadly our society today sometimes gives the impression that with enough influence even egregious deeds are justified.
We have glorified bullying, violence, even treason and explained it away by twisting common sense in many, many cases. If we like someone we too often look away when they do wrong and explain away their misdeeds by insisting that everyone is doing such things or that the person was pushed into the situation by circumstances. We make too many weak excuses for behavior that everyone knows is bad.
There is an unevenness in our sense of justice these days. Little wonder that young people are sometimes confused. They see a kind of hypocrisy in how we defend some and deride others. The inconsistency of our reactions to different people’s infractions makes it difficult to teach children the lessons of being responsible for their actions. They misinterpret our excuses for obviously egregious actions as permission to push the envelope of right and wrong.
Our children are watching us support violence from one group of people but not another. They hear us excusing untrue or insulting comments as long as they align with our own desires. We seem to have tossed our metrics for accountability aside in favor of cult-like support regardless of the situation. No society can survive in such an environment. We have to be clear that there really are red lines that nobody should cross no matter how much we love them.
I still love my student who stole from others. He paid a heavy price for his indiscretions. In the end he did not attempt to make excuses for what he had done. He learned the important lessons that he needed in order to find a place in the adult world. He is doing well today because the adults around him cared enough to insist that he understand the wrongness behavior. They crafted a fair punishment for him while also reminding him that forgiveness was part of the ultimate equation. We would all be better served if we quit making excuses and learned how to lovingly hold people accountable when they stumble and fall. It’s time that we demonstrate fairness rather than hypocrisy. Some actions and some people do not deserve our excuses. Some should have our honor and support because they are doing what is right. We must stop judging situations or people with our own prejudices. The children are watching what we do.