Response and Responsibility
Two media items involving two women, both of whom have been in the political spotlight, came out recently. The contrast is striking.
The first item concerns a woman who became intimately involved with former U.S. Senator and Democratic Party Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards, while he was running for President in 2007. Mr. Edwards is married man. Recently, the woman, Rielle Hunter, sat down with media queen Oprah Winfrey to discuss the affair and its repercussions.
Oprah: Do you think you hurt Elizabeth Edwards?
Hunter: She was hurt by the process.
Oprah: You didn't answer the question.
Hunter: Do I think I hurt Elizabeth? Um, you would have to ask Elizabeth that. I don't know.
Oprah: Do you regret being a mistress?
Hunter: No, because I learned a lot.
At the same time that this interview was taking place, a book, Spoken from the Heart, by former First Lady, Laura Bush, was being readied for publication. Excerpts from the book were released to the news media, and one story in particular, about a car crash, attracted attention.
Mrs. Bush describes how in 1963, at the age of seventeen, she drove through a stop sign and struck another car. The other driver, a friend of hers named Mike Douglas, was killed. Now, almost fifty years later, she records her feelings:
I can never absolve myself of the guilt. And the guilt isn’t simply from Mike dying. The guilt is from all the implications, from the way those few seconds spun out and enfolded so many other lives. The reverberations seem to go on forever, like the ripples from an unsinkable stone.
Two women, both of whom did bad things in their lives, albeit with different levels of intent, reflect upon their bad behavior. One is unrepentant, seemingly oblivious to the notion of wrongdoing. The other recognizes her wrong and acknowledges the impossibility of ever setting it completely right.
At stake are notions of guilt, forgiveness, judgment, and morality.
Two significant character flaws emerge from Ms Hunter’s statements. One, she won’t acknowledge that she hurt someone else, only that Elizabeth Edwards was “hurt by the process.” This viewpoint is adopted so that the perpetrator of a wrong can keep her distance from the victim of that wrong. The notion that events cause pain, rather than the people who trigger those events, is a classic failing of those with weak morality. “It’s not me who’s at fault,” they are saying; “it’s the times, the circumstances, fate which caused this to happen.”
Ms Hunter’s second flaw is her absence of regret. “No regrets,” is a popular refrain, particularly among those who ought to have many. This may be because people often confuse regret with all-encompassing, paralyzing guilt. We don’t want the guilt, so we abandon the regret. This is a mistake.
What our Sages term charatah al haavar is a healthy form of regret, meaningful only if it inspires us to improve. One who wallows in guilt cannot take corrective action, and sometimes can take no action at all, becoming bogged down in depression. That’s not the sort of regret that Judaism wants from a person.
What Judaism does want is expressed by Laura Bush, a response that begets positive, productive forward motion. While Mrs. Bush admits that she lost her faith for awhile after the accident, she recovered, persevered and became a role model for her husband and children.
Having propelled her life productively past her horrible mistake, she nonetheless understands that “the reverberations seem to go on forever,” that the consequences of her actions continue to this day—a stunning admission, one that might cripple a lesser person. Yet, she does not allow that recognition to consume her.
Often, in order to move on from past misdeeds, we “chalk them up to experience,” and talk about how we have become better people because of them. But this does not mean that we ought to deny the wrong that we did, or excuse the hurt that we caused. Sometimes, like in the death of Mike Douglas, the damage cannot be undone.
The baalei mussar teach that we must ask forgiveness each Yom Kippur not only for the sins of the past year, but also for sins of previous years—sins that were already expiated on previous Yom Kippurs. Although we received forgiveness for those sins, we become, with each subsequent Yom Kippur, a year older and, one hopes, wiser and better able to understand the consequences of our actions. By viewing our past behavior in a more mature light, we can reevaluate the fallout our wrongful behavior, and are required to request forgiveness again for the added dimensions of this new understanding.
Finding the right balance may be one of the most difficult challenges in personal growth. Too much regret, too much reflection on the past can lead to emotional overload that renders us powerless to produce productive change. Too little regret, too little reflection on our behavior and we won’t grow; in fact, we’ll make excuses.
Laura Bush seems to have gotten it just right. We can all learn from the former First Lady.