"And I'm here on television saying I screwed up, and that's part of the era of responsibility. It’s not never making mistakes, it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them, and that's what we intend to do."
--President Barack Obama, on his personnel/judgment errors during his first days in office
When I was 16 years old, I umpired Little League baseball in my hometown. It was quite a challenging job--competitive kids, passionate parents, hot summer afternoons, all combined to make the umpire’s job more that of a chief negotiator than simply the guy who called balls and strikes.
In the late innings of a 90-degree second game of a double-header in July, a runner broke for third and I sprinted to the bag to be on top of the play. He slid under the tag, and I called him safe. The third baseman, however, had relayed the ball back to second and tried to get that runner stealing from first. I was sorely out of position to make the call, and the dust was thick. From my crouched stance at third, I spun around and called him out. When the dust settled, his leg was on the base and the second baseman’s glove that clutched the ball was resting on the runner’s shoulder. The runner had beaten the tag. He was clearly safe. I blew the call.
The stands erupted and an irate coach got right in my face and said something that would have led a person to believe my parents were never married. He screamed, “Are you blind?” “No,” I responded calmly. “I just missed the call.” He looked dumbfounded. “Say what?” I stayed calm. “I blew it. But I can’t change it now. Please return to your dugout.” He staggered back to the bench, shaking his head and muttering something in a Polish dialect, I think. I heard him pass a few comments onto the parents in the stands, things about my long hair and attitude, that made him feel better about it, I guess.
Words Of Wisdom
I shook inside but kept my jaw firm and confidence apparent. I breathed slowly and said to myself, “Thanks, Dad.” It was something he had told me only days before. I mentioned that situations like that in games were always looming, and it made me nervous. He said, “That’s not what makes you nervous. Being wrong is what makes you nervous, and you better get over that.” I nodded as if I understood and then said, “How?” His response made for a life lesson that I have never let go:
If you try to be perfect in every way and never make a mistake, you will always fall short because no one is flawless. But he suggested I put myself in the other position and how empty it feels to get a response from someone that I know is clearly wrong, lying or merely trying to cover a mistake. One always knows. So to take the venom out of the bite, simply remove the accuser’s fangs and own up to the mistake. Eventually, it will be found out anyway. So go right to the end of the story and say, “It was me. My fault, I did it. I am to blame.”
With the challenge out of the picture, the confrontation takes on a different dynamic. You don’t need to be reprimanded because you acknowledged the mistake. You further take the wind out of the sails by keeping calm. It reminds the other person that he is prone to error, too.
So, from my father’s lesson, the word for the day is “reasonable.” As my memory serves, this society used to be much more that way. I believe the media--in their ever-present desire for a headline--provokes these situations to sensationalize the news and sell, sell, sell. But understand, they can’t sell if we aren’t so anxious to see others mess up. Why is that? Why are we so ready to expose the errors of others? It has almost become a national pastime to thrive on the pain that others experience.
A Malicious Agenda
Perhaps we are like this because, when others make mistakes, it makes us feel better about ourselves. I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey’s show gets better ratings when she’s heavier rather than when she’s thinner. People want to see her struggling with their same problems. When citizens see the bailouts and penalties for executives who took big bonuses in 2008--granted some of these are shameless--the people who are struggling say, “Why should you get that if I don’t?” In some of those situations a few of those executives who earned big bonuses steered their companies through trying times successfully. Maybe the company is flooded with cash and can afford a great CEO, like a franchise player on a sports team. Why are we so worried about what others--perhaps rightfully--have made? We need to be honest with ourselves and more concerned with our own growth and habits than with those of others.
Paris Hilton will always be at the party, Hillary Clinton will always give her husband a derogatory “shot” when the opportunity arises, Desperate Housewives will always make fools of lustful men, and beer commercials will always expose women’s habits as the things that make men seem like knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. One has to be up for the other to be down. The light invites the dark, the good the bad, the truth the lie. We need to realize that it’s simply how it is sometimes, and maybe we should lighten up on each other, especially on the blame-and-accuse level. What does that get us anyway? Okay, we have located the problem, but what’s done is done. The real question is what are we going to do now and move forward?
Let It Go
Do we gain anything from persecuting John Demjanjuk (thought to be a Treblinka death camp guard) for a third of his life? Or do we learn from the tragedy of the Holocaust and see that it never happens again? The torturous lesson his life has become seems to be the goal of those who suffered during that time. Is it justice or a matter of finding a scapegoat for all of the anger?
Do we debate for decades whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or do we reflect fondly on the Kennedy years and build on the strength that was found during those times?
Can we appreciate movies by Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston without discussing which one’s success is making the other one feel worse? Why is that so important to everyone?
My point here, friends, is that while we’re deciding whom to blame and who is on the cover of People magazine, the Russians are rebuilding, the Japanese are learning to conquer faults in their economy, the Chinese armies are proliferating, all with one common focus--looking ahead and not behind.
Let us become more like that--looking ahead to new opportunities, not looking back and finding someone to blame. President Obama calls for an “Era of Responsibility.” If he’s willing to conduct himself like that, why can’t we? Give him some time to lay out his vision. Let him work his way through the challenges. I guarantee there are more than even he can imagine. A reporter on national television--less than 20 days into the Obama administration term--said, “The honeymoon is over!” I wanted to ask that fellow, “Hey, buddy, what have you done? You wail about this and that, and act like the wise, old bully, but what have you accomplished? This man is trying to save and rebuild the most powerful country in the world, and you have the chutzpah to sit in your chair and critique his intentions? When the wheel comes around to you, pal, your record better be flaw-free, or I’m going to stand you up to the same measure.
For the record, I was not an Obama supporter in this election, but he earned the job fair and square. He is exactly my age, so I empathize with the challenges involved in having one’s “pre-50” credentials tested all the time. If we plan to rebound as a nation, we have to give our elected leader a chance to do the job we’ve asked him to do. We’ve grown too sophisticated to dream of recapturing the innocence of Camelot, but it is not wrong to compliment and think highly and supportively of each other to once more bring into focus the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan saw so clearly. But it can only be done when our generosity toward each other oversteps our determination to blame and insult.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org