Today my sister told me something that brought tears to my eyes: my name and the work I’m doing for kids were brought up in one of her daughter’s college classes. I hasten to tell you that mine were not tears of pride, but of gratitude that I was thus validated in my niece’s eyes. In our family, my siblings and I were raised always being taught that whatever we might do with our lives, it was our duty to be a credit to the family.
The most important judges of whether we hit this mark are not our family’s elders, but the young. It is through the lives of the young that one’s family values are perpetuated. It is through our descendants’ memories that we achieve whatever immortality is possible for us. When we are forgotten, our spirits dissipate and are no longer vital forces in the Universe. If we are forgotten, we may as well have not even lived.
When I was young, being a credit to the family basically amounted to not screwing up too bad: staying out of major trouble, not being a social embarrassment, and (should we die in a car crash) to be wearing clean underwear. As we grew older, the bar was raised from “dont’s” to “do’s”. The expectation was that we should amount to something, even if it should take a whole lifetime to attain.
I’m still working on it.
It’s against this background that I’ve been following the comments to Thursday’s post, “Ghost from the Past,” with great interest. The central question is whether the youthful “hijinks” of a man running for the most powerful office in the world have any relevance today as a basis for our judgment about his suitability, and what the implications of this may be to the work we do for kids—kids who make huge mistakes which are arguably much more serious than mere bullying.
First of all, I don’t believe it is entirely valid to compare the behavior of a scion of a privileged and powerful family to the behavior of a desperate and powerless child such as we see in most parricide cases. One of the reasons I am so comfortable supporting juveniles who kill a parent is because, with very rare exceptions, these children are not culpable in the same way is a street youth with a long rap sheet. They are not criminals, but victims of neglect and abuse who have been forced into a desperate corner by their “caregivers” and snapped. More than ninety percent of them never go on to reoffend in any way.
But for the moment, let’s set aside this distinction and assume that the comparison is valid. One of my strongly held beliefs is that people don’t change, only their behavior does. I know in my bones that I am the very same personality that I was when I was five, or fifteen, or twenty-five… and will be next year when I turn sixty-five.
I am supported in this view by my mentor’s mentor, Alexis Carrel, who among other things was the author of Man the Unknown (1935). Dr. Carrel was a surgeon, researcher, and mystic who received the Nobel Prize for first developing a technique for sewing together blood vessels—a medical discovery which is one of the signature landmarks in world medical history.
In Man the Unknown’s chapter called “Inward Time,” Dr. Carrel said to truly understand the nature of someone or something, you must view it in the fourth dimension of time. Watching a tree grow from acorn to canopy, one sees an unique identity unfold.
The acorn, seedling, and fully-grown tree are one in the same identity. “Tree-ness” is in the acorn. “Acorn-ness” is in the tree. Likewise, said Carrel, if you were to take snapshots of an individual’s total material and spiritual being at various stages of life, you would see transformational aspects of a fixed and unchanging identity. “Each inanimate or living being,” Carrel wrote, “comprises an inner motion, a succession of states, a rhythm, which is its very own.”
What this means is that as I’ve grown and changed I’ve always remained the same person. I’m the same “me” now as I always was and always will be.
How I have changed is in my behavior. As an inexperienced and egocentric youth I had difficulty selling my points of view to others and created unnecessary friction; but as an adult I have learned how to put myself and those same views across to others in ways they will accept.
As I look at Mitt Romney as a teenager and an older man, I am looking for evidence of moral maturity. Fifty years after he bullied and tormented my friend, it is not the actual incident that is so relevant, but whether Romney appears to have learned anything from it and changed his behavior. And for the life of me, I cannot see that he has.
In 1965 Romney committed an act that today would be treated as a felony, and Cranbrook gave him a pass. Years later they even gave him a Distinguished Alumnus Award. John Lauber, the victim and nonconformist, a gifted and sensitive individual, was expelled by the school for smoking a single cigarette. The injustice of this disparity is not the relevant issue today; the fact that Romney is not accustomed to being held accountable for his behavior is relevant.
Not everyone from Cranbrook is giving Romney a pass on his latest Teflon statements to the media. An apparent Cranbrook alum recently published this commentary:
A lot of people who are into partisan politics are saying that those of us who are critical of Romney’s character are motivated by our political leanings. I for one am not. I think Obama has proved himself to be an untrustworthy character as well. I wouldn’t vote for either man.
Virtue knows no politics and may, in fact, be nearly extinct in politics today. Virtue is inculcated unevenly in our schools and institutions, if at all. The last hope for restoring virtue to our society rests in our families and tribes.
Families are the basic building blocks of society, and a final bastion where we can exercise personal influence and control and make a real difference in the world.
Rather than looking to so-called leaders like Mitt Romney, we can accomplish more by exercising leadership in our own families and, through them, create a better future.
Groove of the Day