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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

Reflecting on second chances from the fragility of our glass houses

J. Basil Dannebohm

There’s an old adage that says everybody deserves a second chance. That’s certainly true in a handful of circumstances, but if this were the standard measurement, many of us would have been written off as failures long ago. A more appropriate proverb would be that everybody deserves another chance — and another, if necessary. Think about an infant. When the child is first learning to walk, we applaud their first step, even though it’s almost immediately followed by a fall. In all likelihood, the second chance at walking would meet the same end. Do we write the child off as a failure? Certainly not. Rather, we applaud their attempt at walking and encouraging them to keep trying.

Author John Steinbeck once wrote, “To be alive at all is to have scars.” Indeed, much of life is essentially a cycle of rising and falling. Like the moon, we must go through phases of emptiness to feel full again. What we experience in those dark days and what we learn from those experiences can either change us for the better or jade us for the worse. Fresh chances are a vital part of personal growth. In “Antigone,” the third of his famous Theban Plays, Sophocles reminds us, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

In fact, pride and humiliation can be equally harmful to growth. The widespread use of social media has led to a trend wherein law enforcement agencies post mugshots of those booked into custody. The comment threads are often not only degrading, they’re frankly defamatory. This practice completely negates the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. I speak from experience. Some years ago, my mugshot was broadcasted for the purpose of widespread public humiliation. However, the case against me was dismissed and I was not even required to enter a plea. Naturally that part of the story was never reported. Nobody provided me with “a second chance” to refute a false accusation.

The humiliation caused me psychological trauma and sent my state of mental health to a very dark place. For me, a dangerous combination of pride and humiliation almost became fatal. As a result of harsh comments from the court of public opinion, I found myself with no motivation for self-growth. Nothing about the public shaming encouraged me to bounce back from the experience. Now just imagine how somebody who struggles with an addiction, or a mental illness must feel when they are shamelessly shackled and paraded about the town square for the purpose of ruthless public ridicule. How anybody of good sense believes this spectacle aids in the rehabilitation of somebody escapes logic.

It was purely by the grace of Almighty God that I strived toward brighter, fuller days. As the result of an archaic, Hester Prynne-inspired type of unmerited shaming, not even clergy would meet with me as I attempted to process my trauma. Both family and friends distanced themselves in my darkest hours. I felt empty and alone. Hence, each time I see somebody sharing mugshots of the accused, I am inclined to wonder if karma will someday reacquaint them with another old adage: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Am I saying that all circumstances merit a bleeding-heart expression of pity? Not at all. If a person makes a poor decision, they should expect to face consequences. However, if the consequence does not include some sort of chance for self-improvement, it is futile. This is likely one of the reasons most prisons seem to have a revolving door that sees the same offenders returning for the same crime. Though if I’m being honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lack of rehabilitation is part of the business model. The private prison system has made investors wealthy. A revolving door is good for business.

One thing I find sadly ironic is how many Christians pounce at the opportunity to prematurely crucify somebody. For such Christians, it’s a good thing that a wrongfully accused Savior suffered death in atonement for those who “know not what they do.” As a society, we need to reevaluate how we heal the broken. To this end, interior reflection on the fragility of our own glass houses and vulnerability is paramount. Giving somebody another chance every time they fall is, in a word, godlike. How can we not expect for our neighbor what we hope for ourselves from the Almighty?

As much as I would love nothing more than to go back and erase the last decade of my life, C.S. Lewis reminds us, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Let’s remember that and never grow tired of giving each other chances for better days.


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