It’s people who have done something really bad, or even almost done something really bad. Up to and including torture, murder, and things like that. And who are able to look at themselves with unflinching honesty. Who are able to take that look at themselves, fully comprehend the impact of their actions on others, and then move on with their lives a changed person.
I sometimes envy them. I have done bad things, certainly. But I am not always able to face myself, even after relatively minor things I’ve done wrong. I go into denial. I try to find every way not to face what I have done. Either that, or I take too much responsibility, but I take responsibility for things that aren’t actually my fault or my doing. Much harder is to take a true, honest look at myself, see what I am responsible for and what I am not, and try to specifically take responsibility for the parts that are really my fault, and do my best to fix what I can fix and move on from what I can’t.
As far as I can tell, that’s hard for just about anyone. Most of us run around not facing the way our actions affect other people. Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves, and the consequences of our actions, clearly. Most of us either take responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility, fail to take responsibility for things that are, or, more usually, a little bit of both, here and there. All of which ultimately evades our ability to accurately take responsibility for things we’ve done wrong.
I have a lot of respect for Dave Hingsburger, author of the blog Rolling Around In My Head. He has spent pretty much his entire career as a writer atoning for unforgivable things he did when he was working as staff in institutions for people with developmental disabilities. He wrote the program that gave a DD woman burns all over her skin from an electric shock device similar to those used at the Judge Rotenberg Center. (If you want to read about that and much more, read his book I Witness: History and a Person with a Developmental Disability, which is an extended interview with a wise old woman.) He has always been a role model to me in how to responsibly face up to what you have done wrong, and how to make it right as much as you can. I know it doesn’t come easy to him, but he’s better about it than most people I know.
There are people who try to fake such transformations, of course, and I wouldn’t trust them further than I could throw them. I know someone who hurts people and fakes remorse in a cyclical way that never goes anywhere. But real understanding of the wrongs you have done, and real remorse, has a look to it that can’t be falsified.
I am always amazed when I see criminals recount their crimes with an unflinching accuracy combined with a clear acceptance of what they have done, the harm they have done others, and their role in making it right in any way they can, as well as the realization that even though they will have to atone forever, some things can never be made right. It feels like despite the horrible things they have done, they are on some levels better at behaving ethically than a lot of ordinary citizens who can’t even face up to the last time they lied to their wives about money or something else little like that.
Anyway, I’ve always admired people who can do something really bad, look themselves in the mirror, and turn their lives around. The real thing I mean, not people who fake such a turnaround while looking for admiration or forgiveness in all the wrong ways. I hope someday the rest of us can be that courageous.