How does one generation pass on the torch to the next or succeeding generations?
This question is a common one among the most chronologically mature people, the senior citizens of any society. With few exceptions, they invariably get to discuss the need and possibilities of leaving something behind. Too many, it may be as simple as fond memories. To others, it can be as grand as proud legacies. Yet, among my peers in this age range, there is an unspoken concern, something we hope will never be the case. We all do not want to leave behind a shameful mark that can become the curse of the family or community associated with us.
Despite the general topic being openly discussed, the fear of making our loved ones live with the shame of the ill repute we may have earned in our life is both real and valid. After all, in our humanity, mistakes have been many. In fact, at certain points in a person’s life, mistakes can characterize it. However, learning from those mistakes becomes a continuing journey towards wisdom and integrity. For most, lessons learned and the accumulation of good deeds manage to tip the scales in favor of a net positive memory or legacy.
For most but not for all. There are those who misdeeds or crimes are not easily forgotten. The exceptionally ugly or destructive among them may well never be forgotten because historical archives will carry and perpetuate the story of their wrongdoing. Consequently, one or two generations of their families will have to live with a cross, a curse, because of the public memory or dirty legacy they leave behind.
In many faiths, the process of repentance and redemption intervenes in a person’s life. Sometimes, beyond a person’s life but that of a society, such as Germany or Japan, when the crime is participated by a race or citizenry. Brutality or even genocide can find repentance and redemption when the wrong is admitted and the atonement becomes a collective and sustained struggle. Yes, Germany and Japan are prime examples. Their crimes were acknowledged by them, their repentance sincere, and their efforts at atonement just as public and impactful. Which brings to mind – if a race and country can, so can an individual.
The key act that begins redemption, though, is acknowledgment. It all begins with the truth, then acknowledging the truth – at the very minimum to ourselves. Lying to ourselves, deluding ourselves, cements wrongdoing to a permanent foundation. The truth must be faced, the truth must be acknowledged. Then and only then can redemption become possible.
The challenge is to those who commit not only wrongdoing but wrongdoing considered crimes that have legal consequences. And among those who commit crimes, small or big, the ones who commit them as public officials have an extremely difficult time admitting them. To do that would mean severe consequences, even prison time. The reaction of the guilty ones is invariably to claim innocence. The presumption of innocence is fundamental to the legal system our nation subscribes to. Yet, it has also become a protective wall that saves criminals from conviction and punishment – without which there is no justice.
Many public crimes are unresolved in the public eye even when a court brings about a closure with a final not-guilty dismissal. Legal maneuvers can override both truth and justice. It is always a tragedy when form can queer substance. The thing about truth and justice are that they go straight to people’s hearts. They are understood intuitively more than intellectually. Fairness is not about being smart; it is simply about being fair. And when fairness is denied, even in the smart guise of legalese, it automatically leaves a bad lingering taste in the mouth.
Over time and different circumstances, the wrong that people do are defended and justified to avoid not only embarrassment but conviction and imprisonment. When the guilty get away with it, the succeeding generations are given options that they should never have. They are led to believe that one can get away with crimes if given smart lawyers and maybe even dirty judges. Instead of repentance and redemption, the justice system itself is perverted.
How then will the general population, especially the younger generations, be influenced by the wisdom of elders if their elders are not willing to admit the wrong they do if their elders insist they did no wrong at all? No lessons learned except the wrong ones, and the continuation of what their elders teach them by example.
It may be too much to expect that, with only conscience at work, a guilty person with legal consequences to face would readily admit his or her guilt. Still, that should not deter most of us whose errors are not misdemeanors or crimes, just errors committed from bad judgment or unrestrained emotions, to try to make up for them by admitting our wrong and then atoning for them. This is most crucial for our children – that we do not pass on what is wrong as right simply from pride. This practice has gone a long way in perpetuating a vicious cycle of unlearned lessons.
We are in awe of cultures where guilty ones have the need to apologize publicly when they have betrayed the public trust. We point to them with admiration yet reluctant to push for the same code of honor in our society. Most of all, when it involves our family and friends, the issue of right and wrong becomes blurred, often discarded for a shallow sense of loyalty – our small good versus the larger common good.
Redemption is precisely in the core of spiritual and religious teachings because it raises mistakes to wisdom, converts wrong to transformation, and affirms humility as a powerful virtue.
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