The only thing we know about people — both people we know from a distance as well as our closest friends — is what we know about them. What we don’t know about them, they often take to their graves.
But sometimes private things are revealed. In some cases, the secrets may be minor, and even more amusing than disturbing. Other times, what we didn’t know turns out to be alarming or even criminal.
For instance, the allegations about Bill Cosby drugging and raping women are shocking. Cosby, one of the most popular entertainers in history, will forever have his image shattered by the charges. If true, the revelations reveal a dark side to the man that the world had not suspected. But does it mean that Cosby was not as funny as we used to think he was? Or that “The Cosby Show” is no longer a classic comedy?
Pete Rose will likely never get into baseball’s hall of fame. His gambling addiction will forever taint his reputation. But does it detract from the fact that Pete is one of the greatest baseball players of all time?
The list goes on, and the same applies closer to home. When someone’s faults are revealed, the reaction is usually swift and damning. We put people on a pedestal or hold them in high regard, and then react with surprise, real or feigned, when they are revealed to be less than what we thought them to be, or what they held themselves up to be.
A while back, I saw an episode of a television show called “The Middle,” which I highly recommend, and the father character, a man of few words, had to speak at his own birthday party. What he expressed may not have been an original concept, but he made the point that on everyone’s tombstone there appears the date of their birth and the date of their death, with those years separated by a dash.
That dash, he said, is what’s important. What matters are all the things we did during the years between our birth and our death, years represented on a tombstone by a dash quite short in length but filled with so much meaning, representing every day and every hour of our lives.
The lives of the vast majority of people — even those convicted of the worst crimes — are made up of much more than what one terrible decision or even a series of decisions might forever label them in the public’s mind. People are complicated and interesting and full of contradictions, and few there are who can be properly defined as purely bad or evil.
Even more perilous than labeling people as bad or evil is labeling people as good. Even the Bible teaches us, “There is none righteous; no, not one.” (Rom. 3:10).
When he wrote that line, Paul wanted to make that point clear, didn’t he? When he wrote “There is none righteous,” he could have stopped there. But he probably, in his mind, could hear his intended readers object to that statement and ask, “What about you, Paul? What about Peter? What about the other apostles?” So Paul answered the question before it could be asked, by adding, “No, not one.” Not even one.
Think of the list of grand jury indictments we see in Highland County every month. Most of them are drug-related, some are for other crimes. The only time most of the people on those lists will ever have their names printed in a newspaper will be for their mistakes.
But since they are all human beings, it is undoubtedly true that at one time or another they did something good. Maybe they gave a homeless man five bucks. Maybe they loved a pet. Maybe they were good to their mother. Maybe they even saved a life. But those things never brought any attention, or acclaim, or accolades in the newspaper. Simple acts of kindness tend not to make the news.
So they’ll never be known for anything other than their mistakes or, in some cases, just one mistake — one crucial, reputation-changing mistake. But the dash on their tombstones will represent so much more, things that only God will know and take into account and, through grace, forgive more often than we may think — and certainly more often than our human tendencies allow most of us to do on this earth.
I would hate to have my whole life forever defined by the worst thing I’ve ever done, even if it was just embarrassing, or an example of a bad decision. It would be no fairer than having my life defined by the best thing I’ve ever done. Our lives are filled with endless cycles of good decisions, bad decisions, temptations, redemptions, regrets, forgiveness, stumbles and fresh starts. None of us are righteous. No, not one.
If someone is found guilty of committing a crime, they should pay the penalty, whether through fines, community service or prison sentences. But it should not always become their permanent label.
Our society is particularly judgmental about any crime involving sex, such as the Cosby case. As far as your public image is concerned, you would be better off accused of murder than of a sex crime, and our laws have become shaped that way, too. Murderers, once they serve their time, don’t have to register as murderers for the rest of their lives, or notify the neighbors that they’ve moved next door. Sex offenders do.
We are a judgmental people, by and large, and we particularly seem to enjoy casting judgment on those who are guilty of shortcomings that we do not think exist in ourselves. And yet, since we are all human, we all have faults, drawbacks and, yes – to use an unpopular word – sins. As long as someone else’s sins are different than our own, we are quick to condemn.
Ideally, no one part of a person’s life should end up defining them forever in the public’s mind. No one, in reality, is so one dimensional. Everyone will have some level of good, bad and mediocre represented within that dash on their tombstone. Few there are who are completely bad. And there is absolutely no one completely good. No, not one.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.