I had my first summer job in junior high. My Dad knew someone who needed sort of a ‘gopher’ for a heavy equipment company. The job was located in the industrial area of Portland, which was full of warehouses, truck stops, and machine shops. Though it was a mere 20 minutes from where I lived, for an upper middle class kid from the suburbs, it might as well have been Greece.
My parents were emphatic that I get a summer job and felt the experience of working in the shop would be good for me, so every day my Mom drove me to and from work in the family sedan. To say the shop guys raised their eyebrows at this Mercedes chauffeured, smart-ass kid from the west side was an understatement. On my first day, I was asked to fetch a 7/16 wrench from the toolbox, and I just looked at the guy as if he were speaking a foreign language. “A what???”
Still, despite my initial apprehension and my lack of technical skills notwithstanding, I gradually warmed up to the experience. I felt like a big boy drinking bad coffee and taking grief from the guys. Plus, I had a little spending money in my pocket and as a pre-driving teenager, I had fun driving golf carts and turf equipment to my heart’s content.
One day I was driving a little too fast out in the shop yard and while cutting a corner sharply, I badly scraped a golf cart on a piece of scrap metal. My first instinct was to look around the yard. I couldn’t see anyone for miles. “Thank God. These carts are beat to hell anyway and no one will ever know,” I thought to myself. Then, amidst my planning and scheming ways not to get caught, a voice of reason took over…”Do the right thing Eric.”
I walked into the shop and found Frank, the foreman, to tell him what had happened. “I was goofing off driving too fast in the yard and I messed up the side of one of the carts pretty badly.” Frank looked me dead in the eye and said, “Eric, I appreciate your honesty and you taking responsibility. If it happens again, you’re fired.”
Though they had tolerated me, I don’t think those guys in the shop thought I was worth much of a damn with my polo shirts and designer jeans. They were a rough and tough bunch; blue-collar guys who measured your value by your work ethic and what you could do with your hands. I was about as far from tough and handy as you could get. But at least on that one occasion, they respected that my parents had taught me to do the right thing. One of the guys even took me aside and told me it took real guts to go in and tell Frank the truth. It’s a memory that has stuck with me for over 30 years.
I wish I could tell you that since then I’ve been able to live up to the example of my 15-year old self throughout my life. But truthfully, I haven’t always been truthful. I’ve had more than my fair share of failing to speak up, step up and admit my wrong doings. Honestly, over the years I’ve cared a lot more about my image and appearance than uprightness.
In our social-media inspired ‘look at me’ culture, a genuine heart-felt apology is a rarity. Frankly, it pays to portray a carefully crafted and constructed image of awesomeness and assuredness, versus the vulnerability of humility, remorse and forgiveness. As Andre Agassi once said, “image is everything.”
In the era of seeking validation and popularity, the ability to respond is a lost art. When the notion of responsibility does actually rear its head, it’s seems to be only as a last resort. But admitting guilt once the cat is out of the bag isn’t the same thing as truly taking responsibility. Saying you’re sorry when you’re out of options and under pressure doesn’t really count. In the modern news cycle, stories of scandal dominate the headlines and the obligatory half-assed response occurs only after the jig is up, if at all. This trend has been going on for so long now that we pretty much accept a lack of responsibility as normal.
After years of accusation and speculation, Lance Armstrong only admits guilt after his ongoing brash, arrogant defiance. Back in the steroid era of baseball, while under Congressional oath, Rafael Palmeiro blatantly lied while Mark McGwire took the 5th. Kevin Spacey remains silent despite dozens of credible accusations. Bill Cosby expresses no remorse whatsoever for his actions and when the Harvey Weinsteins of the world actually do get caught red handed, they play the ‘I have a sickness and am getting help card’ as if the sickness (and not their own actions) were to blame.
What ever happened to ‘I hurt people and I messed up bad. I did it and it was really, really wrong.’ That’s a good place to start. Mistakes and royal screw-ups are a guaranteed part of the human condition. Unfortunately, humility and self-reproach are not. ‘I made a mistake and I am going to try and fix it’ requires a moral compass while ‘I’m never wrong’ or ‘I have all of the answers’ simply requires narcissistic arrogance.
We need to stop judging others by the mistakes they’ve made or what news network they watch. Instead, we need to judge others by their response to their mistakes. Our dialogue needs to change from black and white, red and blue, right and left to the more refined qualities of meekness and responsibility. Those who display the ability to respond deserve our patience and understanding and those who don’t, do not. The complexity of our times demands the simplicity of humility.
I like baseball regardless of steroids and PEDs. I rooted for Lance when he was hoisting yellow jerseys. I watched The Cosby Show religiously as a kid and I still think it was groundbreaking TV. I think Kevin Spacey is a great actor. I still appreciate Tiger’s greatness and he will likely go down as one of the best golfers that ever lived. That said, our ultimate reputation isn’t marked by our accomplishments or transgressions, but by our responses to life’s inevitable stormy waters.
The ability to respond is to be “morally accountable for one’s actions.” Every athlete, movie star and politician makes mistakes. We all do. But as my parents tried to teach me, the right thing to do is to get out in front of our missteps and face the music. To heal requires forgiveness of self and others. Healing also requires the ability to step up. It isn’t talent, success or mistakes that defines us; it’s the ability to respond that makes a lasting impression and defines character.