Since I want you to read the full piece, I won’t make a full summary here. I’ll just say it begins with the trial Dowd is now covering: Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State football coach, is accused of sexually abusing young boys he was supposedly mentoring. Dowd’s piece focuses on Mike McQueary, the former Penn State assistant coach who entered the school’s locker room late one night glanced into the showers and saw Sandusky sodomizing a young child — the “little boy who was never found, who was never even sought by Penn State officials.” Rather than step forward to stop the rape, McQueary left to talk it over with his father and a family friend. In the morning, he reported what he saw to coach Joe Paterno. He then “went along with the mild reining in of Sandusky who continued his deviant ways.”
“We’ve moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality.”
That’s a quote Dowd uses from James Davison Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Death of Character. Here’s another quote:
We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn’t bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents.
And people like McQueary, who is suing Penn State for firing him, saying “I don’t think I did anything wrong to lose this job.” And people like John Edwards, who sees nothing wrong with thinking he could run for President of the United States while hiding his pregnant mistress from the public and his cancer-stricken wife. Living in Washington DC, where it seems like half the city’s leaders are either under indictment or investigation, I have plenty of local examples of public officials with moral dysopia.
But not all of our elected officials fail the character test. Dowd asked Newark mayor Cory Booker why he ignored his security team and ran into a burning house to save his neighbors. Here’s part of his answer:
We have to fight the dangerous streams in culture, the consumerism and narcissism and me-ism that erode the borders of our moral culture. We can’t put shallow celebrity before core decency. We have to have a deeper faith in the human spirit.
“With formerly hallowed institutions and icons sinking into a moral dystopia all around us,” Dowd asks:
Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa
As you can see, I was raised Catholic. (I heard an interesting statistic last week: turns out I’m a member of the second largest religious denomination in the United States — ex-Catholics.)
Once upon a time, I’d try to excuse many of my moral lapses by saying “that was when I was a practicing alcoholic.” But I’ve been sober for 33 years now. I understand the wisdom and truth in what my recovering alcoholic mentor Dusty told me at the outset: “Whatever character defects we displayed as drunks, we’ll repeat while sober.”
But I also like this alcoholic recovery slogan: “It’s OK to look back. Just don’t stare.” So I try to acknowledge my past failings and learn from them. But not beat up on myself.
Lately, in my mindfulness meditations, I’ve been focusing on compassion; I worry that the mean-spiritedness I see all around me might be contagious. But Dowd’s piece is a needed caveat that compassion for the failings of others doesn’t mean you walk away from a kid being raped in the shower.
Serenity Prayer Time
Once again, I need to ask my Higher Power to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, even when it’s as horrific as the picture of that kid in the shower, with McQueary walking away. And I need to ask for the courage to intervene if I’m confronted with similar evil.
Meanwhile, I can contemplate this Father’s Day how lucky I am as a father and grandfather and great-grandfather to have the wonderful offspring I do. Even at my advanced age and with the moral morass all around (and inside?) me, I still find myself at times spontaneously saying “I love my life!” Which is exactly what I said Saturday night about 6pm as I was sitting in the back of my garden, drinking coffee and gazing at this scene: