06/23/12, Editor’s Note: Last night, Jerry Sandusky, the real-life monster who committed unspeakable, horrendous acts, was found guilty of 45 of the 48 counts he was charged with and will spend the rest of his life in jail. There will no doubt be further investigations into officials at Penn State, as well as civil litigation on behalf of the victims. It will take years, if not decades, for the University to recover from this horror. How ever long it takes though – the institutional recovery is far less important than the recovery time for the victims … a nightmare that they perhaps will never fully wake from.
I understand this better than I did in January; the last 5 months of my personal life have revealed more to me than the past 29 years. I have come to fully realize that you can work your whole life for something, just to have it taken away. There is no insurance against tragic, dark and destructive events in our lives. There is only recognition and reckoning. There is only acceptance and forgiveness. And there is moving on. Otherwise, once the dusts settles, there will be nothing left to mourn.
All prayers at this time for the victims, their families, and their friends. All hope at this time for the town and the University, that they will be far more vigilant in the future, regarding the protection and allegiance to children, and all those who are vulnerable within their community. And all luck to the rest of us as we navigate life, hoping that we are always making the right choices, that we never lose all that we have worked for, and that we are protected against the very darkest of tragedies.
I went through a Brett Dennen phase this summer; it was one of those times where you connect with an artist and feel as if every song they sing was written for, by, or about you and your own intimate experience. Over and over the songs played on a special little playlist. I kept going back to one song, alternately crying and smiling after each new turn with the words. So many truths found in each little line, and over the course of a weekend I dedicated my time to nothing more than dissecting each word for the myriad of layers it possessed. I “got” the song, almost completely (and why wouldn’t I, haven’t I already said it was written with me in mind?) The line that I couldn’t put my arms all the way around was this one:
“You can spend your whole life working for something, just to have it taken away.”
No. Not possible. I believe myself to be somewhat of a “pragmatic optimist” and while I can at least understand, if not truly believe, that life is not always fair, I do not believe that a person could dedicate the totality of his or her life to a mission, a goal, or a belief, just to have it “taken away.” No force is powerful enough to negate, in one swift motion, the entirety of one’s life-long dedication, and certainly not if the mission itself was undertaken in order to serve a higher purpose; no completed mission of love can be torn down by one act of hate. If I believed that, the fear of loss would loom over every opportunity I had to dedicate myself to one pure principle. Or, in other words, if you believed that 1 % wrong could override 99 % right, the question becomes, “why try?” No … I didn’t get it, didn’t believe it, didn’t understand it.
Now I might.
For the last two months I’ve watched in dismay as Penn State, a University knotted up in the fabric of my story, found itself involved in child sexual abuse scandal that has devastated countless people, in a domino-effect of heartbreak. I have not written about it thus far because I was unable to process all my own thoughts about the situation. Honestly, I’m still not on solid ground as I reflect on the tremendous loss involved with every aspect of this story. But just so I’m as clear as possible, I need you to know that my truest belief is that Joe Paterno was a scapegoat for a broken system. He was the figurehead of a University that made egregious mistakes in it’s handling of an alleged crime against a child. He found himself as a figurehead because he had represented, with honor and integrity, the very best that Penn State stood for – and he did so for over 60 years. For those who have heard from a co-worker that Joe Paterno did “nothing” once he learned of this alleged incident, I urge you to do your own research. He did in fact report it to the proper authorities on campus, with the understanding that they would be far better suited to investigate and hold accountable anyone involved in something so sinister.
This is where you have to ask yourself, as a witness to a story, “what would I have done in that situation?” And unless you subscribe to vigilante justice, I imagine you would find yourself telling an authority figure or the police, just like Joe Paterno did. “Did he do enough?”, is the other question, and the answer is sadly, “no.” And he knew it. And I’m OK with knowing it too, because he did the best thing he knew how to do in the moment. It fell short, and honestly I don’t know what action he really could have taken for it to have “been enough.” He didn’t abuse anyone himself, and he did not aide or willingly allow someone to abuse children in his presence. He took action that fell short. We all do. I hope that I never have to be in a situation where my shortcomings could lead to further injury or insult to another. I pray. I trust that I am always doing enough.
Now you know where I stand. I just want to tell you why it matters to me that Joe Paterno worked his whole life for something, only to have it taken away, and why I am so deeply saddened and angered by it.
(Pre-“US”): Thommy and I shared a love of Penn State before we even met.
(June 26, 2004): We discussed the school and it’s legendary coach during our very first date.
(October 1, 2004): After a particularly ridiculous fight, Thommy showed up outside my French 201 classroom with tickets to see The Dave Matthews Band play a “Vote for Change” concert at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College; it was my first concert.
(October 13, 2007): Thommy proposed to me at halftime of the PSU vs. Wisconsin game at Beaver Stadium.
(February 18, 2008): Accepted into the Nutrition program at Penn State for the first time.
(October 5-6, 2008): We spent 2 days of our honeymoon in State College, visiting all the places we had previously only read about.
(December 26, 2008): Adopted an orange and white tabby kitten from the animal shelter; named him JoePaw, or Joey for short.
(January 1, 2009): Attended the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA – Penn State vs. USC.
(July 2009): Lived in Pleasant Gap, PA – just outside of State College. Dream come true.
(Nov 3, 2009): Accepted into the Nutrition program at Penn State for the second time. Was living in PA to establish residency so I could afford to attend in Fall 2010. 5 days later…
(November 8, 2009): The very first MS symptoms appeared – and not a day would go by without them until late December.
(December 15, 2009): Official MS diagnosis.
(February 2010): Left State College to move back to NY.
And while I lived in Pleasant Gap, I worked for the hospital where Joe Paterno passed away last Sunday. Thommy had met him at “Paternoville” on the eve of the Iowa game in 2009. When we moved to Ithaca we opened a Bank of America checking account; it had photos of the Nittany Lion on, it was blue and white, and it said “Penn State Alumni Foundation” – and I didn’t care that I was not an alumni, I felt a part of the University. And I still do.
And I always will.
Because when you attach yourself to something larger than life, and it plays a supporting role in so many of your stories, there is really no way to disconnect. And if that something is an institution, you’ll expect better. And falling short, the way Penn State University fell short, will not necessarily ever be forgivable or forgettable and you will expect, as I do, that the institution will make amends in whatever way it can. It will investigate, change laws, change attitudes, beliefs and whole cultures, if it has to – and Penn State does. It will protect children – as an institution MUST when it is entrusted with the care & development of students – and it will never act, as a whole, in such a disgraceful way again. It must do better. And I believe it will.
But when you speak of a man, who gave his life to an idea, a program, an institute, a town – then you need to hold a little more space. He described it this incident as one of the “great sorrows of [his] life,” and he was the only mentioned in this scandal at Penn State who took responsibility for anything. Had he known more, had he understood better, than he could have possibly acted with more determination. This institution, which would not exist the way we know it today without Joe Paterno, will now have to stand behind his legacy and his honor and say “we are sorry, and that is not enough, and here are the steps we are going to take so that no allegation will ever fall through the cracks again…” –
Joe Paterno elevated so many great men and women to places of integrity, wisdom and strength. He gave more than anyone could have ever expected and he did it for the love of Penn State. For the love of Joe Paterno, Penn State needs to return the favor.
I read a piece by Rick Reilly this morning that I urge you to read. The heart of the piece urges us to contemplate this: “If we’re so able to vividly remember the worst a man did, can’t we also remember the best?”
I don’t know if I am yet ready to concede to Brett Dennan and his declaration that it is possible to work your entire life for something, many million of moments compounded, just to have it taken away in a single instance; that thought makes so uncomfortable, more so than the thought that each of us have the capacity to make huge errors, great grievances and devastating mistakes, because it is in those moments we are subject to forgiveness. But when you’re whole life is taken away, how do you recover? Is salvation, at any level, possible… and if not, who judges the winners and the losers?
Are we not all, as Augusten Burroughs states, “made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions?”
I will be donating to THON 2012 on behalf of Joe Paterno this year. Click to learn more.
A final note. Jay Paterno told ESPN that during the last few days of his life, JoePa was surrounded by all his children and grandchildren, and they all spent time with him, in contemplation and prayer – all communicating to the patriarch in different, meaningful ways. Jay shared that his son took time to read Rudyard Kiplings “If” to his grandfather. Of course he did; what more comforting words could Joe have possibly needed?
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”