Wrongdoing and Regret:
Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Lance Armstrong have something in common.
Freeman and De Niro play roles depicting the power of regret: when you've done the unforgivable.
And, in real life, Lance Armstrong has sullied a sport he loved. Surely he regrets.
There's a lot written about whether or not to forgive; victims need ways to heal. But, what about the other side of the equation; the wrongdoer? Even if you're not to be forgiven, you can take steps to heal a wrong - even if incompletely.
We hear about wrongdoing all the time. It seems like a cultural obsession. Lance Armstrong was the kingpin of cycling, and now he's disgraced. Name a celebrity, and you'll find an idealization and a fall. And, there are so many things that people do wrong.
Since I work often with divorce, I've heard all the stories.
People injure each other, and sometimes in unforgivable ways. It could be a rape, a financial swindle or a betrayal. These things really hurt. It could be a trauma; a terrorist attack or a drunk driver taking your teenage daughter. How do you forgive? Can you? Should you ? And, how can the wrongdoer do something constructive to make the wrong, somehow – right?
The wrongdoer is a human being; and not all people who hurt others are sociopaths. If you have done wrong, there is a way to heal;
- Regret Sincerely
- Make Amends
- And, Initiate Change
For some people redemption is possible, and you need not be religious for it to happen.
Now-a-days we don’t have a strong sense of how to make amends, or for that matter, how to live with regret. We count on lawyers and the legal system too much.
Sometimes a wrong is addressed well by a sincere apology. But, often apologies are rote, and insufficient. Too many betraying wives and husbands say they’re sorry, but don’t mean it. And, in the public sphere, too many financial scoundrels and dirty politicians read an apology written for them by a team of attorneys.
There’s little healing from an apology that isn’t backed by regret and the wish to make amends. Some people never learn. They may even do it again, given the chance.
Wrongdoing in Sports:
Lance Armstrong finally admitted to wrongdoing; he apologized. Sports counts on fair play; otherwise why we should we care? Lance was evidently part of a larger deceit that cuts deeply into the magic of sports.
Like most cheats, he benefitted in many ways from illicit performance enhancing; Lance became famous, wealthy and an icon. We can’t diagnose from a distance, but if Lance struggles with some form of narcissism then people and his sport where just objects.
Now, he is in position to make amends. Will Lance Armstrong change because of his regret, or will he just try to "win" in another arena? The tension will be between strategizing a comeback and really "coming back" to being a morally centered person.
So, what does regret look like? It's hard to watch someone who experiences regret; it's so private. But, two great films speak directly to this struggle. Both depict redemptive journeys.
Wrongdoing in the Movies:
One is The Mission, with Robert De Niro, in which he plays a vile and callous mercenary in 18th century Peru. After discovering that his beloved younger brother (Aiden Quinn) was in love with his girlfriend, De Niro’s character is compelled to kill his brother out of honor. Much of the rest of the movie features his attempt to redeem himself from this unforgivable act.
I don't want to give away the details; it's a fascinating attempt by one man to go on despite unforgivable circumstances. Some people do terrible things on purpose, or by accident, that they can never take back. How do you make amends? How does one manage?
De Niro's character finds a way to redeem himself, despite the unforgivable. The Mission is a movie about the darkness of human nature and the power of spirit. It has a modern message. How many people, for instance, are in twelve step programs, righting past wrongs every day? They know who they hurt - and why. It's noble.
The second movie is The Shawshank Redemption, with Morgan Freeman playing the role of Red, a convict who had murdered a man in his youth. There's a scene in this movie that haunts me.
Freeman is an old man. Every ten years or so, he’s been presenting his case to a Parole Board made up of disinterested government lackeys. Each time he sits alone in a featureless room facing his fate. Each time parole is swiftly denied.
In his thirties he tells them he didn't mean to do it. In his forties he argued that he had served enough time. In his fifties, he talks of his suffering and his sorrow. Now, in his senior years, some forty years after the crime, Freeman stops trying to convince anybody anymore. He tells the board, but really himself, about how he wishes he could go back to that stupid kid who did a terrible crime…and shake some sense into him.”
• 1967 Parole Hearings Man: Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you've served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you've been rehabilitated?
• Red: Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means.
• 1967 Parole Hearings Man: Well, it means that you're ready to rejoin society...
• Red: I know what *you* think it means, sonny. To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?
• 1967 Parole Hearings Man: Well, are you?
• Red: There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time; because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit.
The murder is no longer about prison. It’s about a profound human emotion – regret.
And, its about a profound human experience - change.
Camera shows a close up of someone stamping an official document: REHABILITATED.
The Unforgivable: This human experience of wounding - of forgiving (or not) - and of personal redemption is an important topic. I pray that we are all be blessed with understanding these concepts more deeply as tools for healing, rather than as mandates that can only oppress us.
Regret and making amends have a role in healthy human relationships. Not every wound is unforgivable. We all make mistakes and hurt people we care about. But, without knowing how to make things better, we are stuck with empty apologies when we really yearn to do more. After all, if you did wrong, you broke something. It’s often worth the effort to try and fix it. The victim may appreciate it; and you will be better for it.
As therapists, we can carefully enter this most ancient of truths, and make our patients aware of the world of regret, hurt, betrayal, making amends, and forgiveness. They are powerful concepts. They are not to be legislated, but lived.
For this, the patient will have to lead the way.
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