It’s strange for me to start my first blog post with the topic of second chances. However, like many out there, I as a normal person who goes to work and tries to do my best, be there for my family and friends, and try to do a little good along the way, am struggling to make sense of our country’s political discourse that seems to have room only for the extremes. But before I delve into my thoughts on how second chances intersect with our current national conversation, I want to let you know where I am coming from.
I am a first generation American. My parents were born in Israel and immigrated to Canada to pursue a college education. My parent’s dislike of the cold brought us first to Florida, then to Alabama (briefly) and finally to Texas. After graduating from High School in San Antonio, TX, I began my educational pursuit first in North Carolina at Duke followed by medical school in Houston, residency training back at Duke, and finally fellowship and a faculty position at the University of Michigan.
Even though I do not love the cold, I have been very fortunate to have a robust career as an academic urologist in Ann Arbor, MI, have three great kids who constantly make my life interesting, and a wife who is a true partner in a hectic life. Growing up, I was always drawn to stories of adversity that people overcame or people who were given second chances after causing or experiencing tragedy in their life. I don’t have a great explanation for this. My life has been pretty good. Sure, I come from a very modest background but my family has always been supportive of me and I never experienced a time when I did not have what I needed. But my parents always emphasized the distinction between want and need driving me to pursue meaning over possessions.
Perhaps what draws me to the whole “adversity” genre is that it is an integral part of the American mythos. As a naturalized citizen and child of immigrants, the idea of striving to make a better life here in the United States is the mantra of our parents. Do well in school. Pursue a professional degree. Don’t let laziness stand in the way of working hard to achieve the American Dream. As such, stories of what seemed like regular people overcoming adversity and tragedy to do something meaningful with their lives served as fuel to support my own trajectory.
Like many other kids growing up, I played little league baseball. I was inspired growing up in Lakeland, FL by watching Tigers spring training. I had less than a stellar career but I especially loved baseball movies. Perhaps not the best movie of its time, “The Bad News Bears” fit my mold of a great story where the team overcame the adversities of physical limitations, a drunk and burnt-out coach, and socioeconomic barriers to achieve success. I’m talking about the 1976 Walter Mathau movie, not the 2005 Billy Bob Thorton remake. To me this movie represented the transformation that could occur when a group of individuals were able to overcome their weaknesses and work hard together to get better. What always surprised me most about this movie is that they still lost in the end to the arrogant Yankee (not the typical Hollywood ending) but they overcame their individual challenges and got better as a team.
While the ability to overcome the odds to achieve success can and does occur, we unfortunately live in a time where many people face such extreme barriers that no amount of hard work or effort can help them get over the threshold to achieve their goals. Bias, hatred, financial barriers, cultural barriers, lack of role models, inadequate education, and many more than I can list prevent people with great potential from ever achieving great things. Some people will blame it on laziness or the culture from which a person comes from but I think we can all agree that we live in a society where those with access to resources will exceed those without even if the latter’s potential is greater.
Which brings me back to second chances. These barriers to success have crept into all of our lives to the point where none of us can shed the mistakes and missteps of our past. The news cycle was dominated this past weekend by a photo in a medical school yearbook supposedly depicting Governor (of Virginia) Ralph Northam in “blackface” beside someone dressed in a Klu Klux Klan hood. I have not seen the picture and I don’t want to. I will never condone the depictions of racism and hatred that have haunted our country since its inception. I also lack the facts and expertise to comment on what Governor Northam should do.
This issue brings up a far bigger societal issue that we need to grapple with. Most if not all of us regret saying or doing something in our past. Before the advent of the potential for 24/7 exposure of all aspects of our lives, there were only words or pictures (and film) that could catalogue our prior errors. Today, we and our children are constantly documenting pictures, videos, and thoughts incessantly on a multitude of platforms available for the world to see (unless you restrict your privacy settings and even then, your data still may be sold). Youth and/or circumstances often lead us, as humans, to say stupid things or behave in stupid ways.
That doesn’t mean we should take a “boys will be boys” attitude to improper behavior, actions, or words. But should someone’s entire life be judged by one or a few actions? In this day and age, it seems that those on the extreme end of the political spectrum or those with a rigid dogmatic view of the world are doing just that. But I don’t believe it is up to one person or group to decide whether a persons’ errors are unforgiveable. The extremes of our society view the actions of others through their biased lenses and for individual or group benefit. As a consequence, this discourse is robbing our society of people who want and can make the world better for all of us as they are picked off for an indiscretion that one group cannot forgive. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where only the extremes can survive the scrutiny of public exposure crowding out us normal people who try to do our best every day.
We as individuals and as a society need a second chance. It used to be so easy as a kid. If someone messed up during a game, they could ask for a do-over and most of the time, the other kids would agree. Kids know that we all need a do-over, a second chance sometimes. I believe there are a couple of ways we get that second chance. First, and foremost, the silent majority needs to speak up and engage in civil discourse. We must ask our elected officials to attend to the work they were elected to do and not to the news cycle, their re-election, or to the needs of their political party or donors. Leaders listen and act. We must ask our elected leaders to listen to their other elected colleagues and act on their principles even if they don’t always align completely with their constituents. We need to demand that our elected officials act with humility and courage to address the shared problems facing our country. I felt sadness during the State of the Union and Rebuttal last night. Words of bipartisanship were window dressing for political theatre.
Second, vote for people with honesty, integrity, and the willingness to serve the people over party or dogma. Politicians up for reelection need to be judged by actions (their record) and not words or promises. Finally, those who want to serve should be allowed to explain their past errors and be given the opportunity to make amends to voters and neighbors and not to ideologues or the partisan news cycle. I know this sounds naïve and simple but if we could allow a do-over on the playground as kids, we can certainly at least give our fellow human beings an opportunity to explain their past.
I’ll leave you with a final thought. I am now on my 4th reading of the Harry Potter series. First was on my own as a young adult and the three additional times are with each of my children as they get old enough to appreciate it. Reading to my children is one of the best parts of my day. For those of you who have read the books and/or seen the movies, a recurring theme is that Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, is known for giving second chances. Despite everyone’s distrust of Severus Snape, Dumbledore judged Snape on the totality of his actions and not his past. His past was not forgotten but it was understood. It always comes as a surprise to me as I get to the end of the series with each of my children when they realize that Snape made the greatest sacrifice and was a true hero even more than Harry Potter. How many people are we preventing from making our world a better place by not offering them a second chance?