On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Cigarette Smoking, Bull-Fighting, and the NFL

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What connects the words that make up the title you’ve just read? More than you might think. And they represent a dark-side to daily life in the USA and around the world.

Yet we tend not to think about them and it (that dark-side) very much.

The main link among the three is that they involve varying degrees of destructive behavior; indeed, they all risk a needless acceleration of death; an increase in the chance of an early demise for those who participate in the activities in question.

Smoke cigarettes and you roll the dice on emphysema, heart disease, cancer, and more; fight a bull and you just might not leave the stadium still breathing; play in the NFL (National Football League) and you increase your risk of dementia and a shortened life expectancy. All while the promoters of these actions and events make money.

Football, smoking, bull fighting, and (one might add) boxing have another thing in common. They are activities performed (or at least begun) when one is young; when one is in full leaf and flower, like a tree on a mid-spring day. And just as the tree cannot imagine (having no consciousness) that it will turn brown and dormant before the year ends, young people have difficulty really believing that they are mortal, and imagining a time when they could be enfeebled or worse.

Tears and strains, bumps and bruises, broken bones, and bouncing brains; bodies busted and bent.

That is what I am talking about.

According to the NFL players association, the average professional career lasts 3.5 years. No wonder that some say the letters NFL actually mean “Not For Long.” Certainly, many players are cut from the team for under-performance in an enormously competitive environment, but many leave because of injury. The average life-span of an ex-NFL player is 55 overall and only 52 for linemen. No doubt, this is partially due to factors beyond the punishment done to their bodies by the violence of contact, particularly weight and diet-related problems.

But do not dismiss the direct effect of that punishment on producing life that is diminished and shortened. A recent University of Michigan study of 1063 retired NFL players found dementia-related conditions at a rate five times higher than the national average for men 50 or older; in ex-NFL players 30 to 49, the rate of dementia-type conditions is 19 times higher than for other men in the same age group.

And what is the reaction of most of us to this? Perhaps we say, “that’s interesting, but it’s a free country and the smokers and the football players are free to take their chances.” And on Saturday or Sunday we cheer for the football teams and the young players, just as you might yell “ole'” at a bull-fight. No one does pep-rallies for smokers, of course, but we do not prevent their slow self-injury, even if we limit it to certain places and conditions.

Somehow, the bull fights seem a bit more honest to me. The injuries are plain to see. And, the bull will spill blood and die while we watch, unless it first injures the matador to the point of his own bloody and usually visible injury.

By comparison, we won’t see, for the most part, the smokers wheezing, or lying gray in ICU, holding on, if they can, to dear life; or the ex-football lineman (unless he is as famous as the boxer Muhammad Ali), rendered almost mute by the effects of repeated head injuries. We won’t be there for the knee and hip replacements; we won’t spell the over-taxed spouse who married the daring young athlete-hero in his prime, and now must change his diapers.

It’s only a short step from this to war, don’t you think? Again, it is the young who fight for us and who suffer for us, mostly out of our sight in a place far away.

Are we really so far removed from the days of gladiatorial combat in the Roman Coliseum? Dig not too far below the surface of civilization and you will find more than a little brutality. And, too often, if you look a bit more closely, there we are, the two of us, preparing a tail-gating party to witness the carnage, bundling up to sit in the stands, cheering it on.

Bull Fighter, the above image, is the work of Montyne. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons, where it was authored by Sterling Evans, originally from http://www.montyne.com/