The Work of Being My Brother’s Keeper

Yesterday as I’m watched the coverage of Joe Paterno’s passing, it struck me at how sad a moment it was all around. What also stood out for me was the inherent lesson in the last few months of the life of such a legendary sports figure and humanitarian:

The cost of doing good for humanity is great, and the consequences of crimes against humanity are utterly disastrous.

I did an entry a few months back on the Paterno saga that I will not fully rehash here. But in summary, Joe Paterno was a legendary college football school at the university of Penn State in Pennsylvania. He was the winningest college football coach and worked at Penn State for over 60+ years, 46 as the head coach. He was fired in November due to allegations made that one of his former coaches sexually abused young boys while on his staff in the 1990s and after he retired in the early 2000s on campus grounds. The allegations are that Paterno was informed by one of the graduate students of such an incident on campus grounds, and while he reported it to his bosses, Paterno didn’t call the police himself.

As with the last time I wrote on this issue, I’m not here to shift through the information on this case to separate fact from allegation. Still, such a story highlights the fact that as people we often focus on the negatives and the screw-ups in life and never give the positives and uplifting stories the same level of credit and acknowledgement. It seems that there is an implicit expectation of those who were on behalf of others that all they can do is good, and that mistakes are not possible.

It says something how hard those who work on behalf of others, whether they be coaches, priests, program coordinators, foster parents or doctors. People involved in the business make such far-reaching impact that cannot be quantified. I’m sure everyone can think of at least one person who they may have admired from afar or someone who directly impacted their life in a positive manner. Many of these folks are often selfless, helping others not for the glory, personal benefit or the fear of failure, but because it is the right thing to do.

Still, as I watch the overwhelming yet tempered public support and remembrance of Joe Paterno unfold all morning, I found myself reflecting on a forgotten comment that popped immediately into mind. My mother shared this thought once when I first visited the US that has stuck with me since:

“This country prides itself on legacy and reputation. Be careful of what you do and who you lend yourself to. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation that can be gone in the blink of an eye at the slightest misstep.”

Of course this statement knows no bounds of culture, race, or socioeconomics. It just goes to show you how hard it is to be our brother’s keeper. But when living it a place where the intangible such as reputation and legacy matters the most, people never truly recover in the face of a misstep.

To me, it’s often a lie to stay people can fully bounce back from their mistakes in the eyes of others.  The former shine on a legacy and the glowing endorsement of a reputation can go the same way as broken trust in the face of any scandal or wrongdoing – lost forever, never able to reclaim that indelible and so-perfect luster. What we should be telling folks is the truth: once you pay your penance, there is a good chance for you to shape a new perception of folks in more positive light in the aftermath of any scandal or mistake made. Yes, there will always be those who will believe that the person who did the screw-up is a true internal reflection of the individual’s persona, but by and large most people will show forgiveness.

I am not condoning the error that Paterno made at all, because abuse of any kind is still abuse. That, like many other crimes against humanity can never be overestimated or swept under the rug in the face of doing good for others. In reference to the accused coach Jerry Sandusky, one might say that there are those who have committed the worst crimes against humanity were as equally honorable to those they cared about were as equally horrific to their victims. At the end of the day, the survivors of crimes against humanity are the ones sentenced to bear life long scars and the emotional burdens that come with such violation. We should never lose sight of what has happened to the victims of the alleged sexual abuse in this case.

To me it was a pity that Paterno was never afforded the opportunity to do so. Between the decline in health and the horrific nature of the allegations, we will never know what he really knew. I know there were brief interviews and statements leaked before he got ill, but it is shame to see that he didn’t have the opportunity to use this tragedy as an avenue to show no matter how much good you do, there is still more that can be done. It wasn’t about salvaging his reputation, but showing the local community at large that still held him in high regard by responding in that iconic classy manner which made him so beloved at Penn State.

Yes, those who truly try to uplift others carry a heavy burden. Doing good is often taxing on them and when they fail, the consequences are far-reaching. Still, we must not shy away from being our brother’s keeper, as in the time of tragedy is when he will need us the most.

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