Trent Lott spent his entire adult life crafting a political career. Starting as a 27-year-old congressional aid, he was elected to Congress in 1972, and rose to the position of Republican party whip. In 1988 he became a U.S. Senator and steadily climbed through the ranks.
Through it all, Lott carefully measured every action and word, striving toward his ultimate goal of political power.
The big pay-off came in November 2002, when Republicans gained control of the Senate, and Lott was slated to become Senate Majority Leader – the most influential man on Capitol Hill.
Instead, two weeks before his leadership post was to have taken effect, Lott has announced that he is stepping down.
How did this carefully crafted 30-year dream go up in smoke?
With one errant comment.
In one errant moment, a lifetime of effort came tumbling down.
Though Trent Lott had misstepped in the past, he was always able to finesse them away. But this time, when he uttered a few words of praise for the old South segregationist policies, it wiped out a lifetime of effort: countless campaign appearances, parlor meetings, and backroom deals, where every word was precisely calculated, and every deed designed for maximum impact.
In that moment, it all came tumbling down.
In reality, such an extreme turnaround could happen to any one of us. Maimonides writes that each person should see life as hanging in the balance, where each small move can make a world of difference.
Indeed, I could invest years forging trust in my marriage. But one bad slip of the tongue, or one careless judgment, could wipe out everything.
I could devote years to building up my business, but one false move could destroy it all.
Turn it Around
The good news is that this cuts both ways. One word, one deed, can similarly transform a lifetime of mistakes into true greatness.
The Talmud tells of a man who had an incorrigible vice. One time he heard about a special opportunity to feed his habit. So he traveled across the world, and upon arrival, paid an exorbitant sum of money as an entrance fee.
Once inside, he saw a large ladder ascending to the object of his desire. He began to climb the ladder, and when he'd almost reached the top, he stumbled and fell.
There are those who acquire their entire world in one moment.
As he sat on the ground, bruised and disheveled, he put his head in his hands and began to cry. He thought about all those years of wasted time and energy, chasing futility.
He cried and cried... and then he died. At that moment a voice rang out from heaven, saying: "This man has attained the highest level of righteousness."
This one act of sincere regret outweighed an entire lifetime of negativity. As the Talmud says: "There are those who acquire their entire world in one moment." Imagine the opportunity. We work hard, expending time and energy to move our lives forward. Yet sometimes a person can wake up in the morning and find that their life has been going in the wrong direction. They feel helpless and overwhelmed. How will they crawl out of this abyss?
With one word, one deed, we can turn it all around.
The Passover Haggadah speaks of the Four Sons: wise, evil, simple, and the one who doesn't know how to ask. The commentators explain that these sons are listed in the order of their greatness. We can understand why the wise son is listed first. But why is the evil son listed second? Shouldn't he be last?
If the wicked son turns around 180 degrees, he'll be as great as the wise son.
The answer is that in terms of drive and energy, the evil son ranks high. He is just directing his efforts in a negative direction. If he can turn around 180 degrees, he'll be as great as the wise son.
We are all standing on a ledge where life can go in two directions. Every slight move is ripe with dramatic, eternal consequences.
We must choose carefully.
Maimonides goes one step further: We should imagine the entire world as hanging in the balance, where any single action I make can tip the balance and bring the world to perfection.
As Trent Lott learned, our relationships, career, and life itself is fragile and tenuous. Yes, the consequence of failure is great. But the reward of success, the Talmud tells us, is 500-fold. Our life is brimming with responsibility. Let's embrace it.