The recent questioning of Judge Samuel Alito has got me thinking about many things. One of the "issues" has been his membership many years ago -- about 20 I believe -- in a club at Princeton with some controversial tenets. I am certainly not qualified to comment on the implications, if there are any, of such a membership, but it got me wondering about whether or not we can ever escape our past. If we made a mistake 20 years ago, as a teen or young adult, are we doomed to be judged on it forever? And is it appropriate? With Google, any of our errors that received any type of publicity are accessible to anyone, anywhere. Is this good?
In Judaism, we believe in the possibility of and power of teshuva -- repentance and change. This is a gift that the Almighty as given us. We are not trapped or limited by our past. We can rise above and beyond it. We all made mistakes when we were younger (we may even still make some today!) but doesn't a crucial part of growth and maturity occur as we work our way through those painful experiences?
We are also taught that just as we judge others so the Almighty judges us. That argues for a very generous and forgiving position (Mr. Kennedy).
There is also a difference between mistakes of judgment due to immaturity and mistakes due to poor character.
There is also a difference between mistakes of judgment due to immaturity, limited experience and one too many college orientation events, and mistakes due to poor character.
Most of us eventually grow up and mature; our tastes, attitudes and behaviors are very different now than they were when we were 18. But character is harder to change. If someone was cruel 20 years ago, if they didn't put in a lot of hard inner work, chances are they're still cruel now (only in more subtle and devious ways). If someone was dishonest 20 years ago, chances are they're still dishonest (look for their name in the business fraud section of your local paper). If someone was always spreading rumors 20 years ago, they're probably still a gossip (and working for some Hollywood magazine!).
Change is certainly not impossible. Marriage, family, life's pain and challenges can shape us into deeper and more complex human beings. Perhaps we were angry young men (or women). We've calmed down. We've seen its destructiveness. We've learned to pull back from the brink. We've discovered that there are people and things more precious than ourselves, human beings and ideas for whom change, or at the very least, self-control, is worth it.
There are some people who have experienced true regret and have proactively made serious, deep-seated change.
Certainly our viewpoints have changed. (Note all the former sixties radicals now working on Wall Street!) Did Mr. Alito agree with the tenets of the Princeton club? Did he just join without thinking? Was it a lark? As sense of belonging?
It doesn't really matter. What matters is the decision he would make now, with maturity, with forethought, with patience and consideration. (Maybe that's why we slow down as we get older!)
We all have the opportunity to do teshuva, to erase the past. I don't think any of us should be judged on actions of 20 years ago (with limited exceptions like violent crimes). We should operate on the assumption that those around us have also grown and changed. The very assumption we want others to use when looking at us.