Monday, April 9, 2012

Second Chances and Making Good

The other day, at a party, I began a brief and disjointed conversation with a young man that never got finished. The young man – in his mid-twenties, I believe – is smart, personable and ambitious. He aims to run his own business and to become a millionaire. He shared his ideas on how to make good, how incentives to the young might be re-ordered, and some interesting theories on human development. He was very impressive. But I was troubled by something he said. “I think people deserve a second chance, but I’m not sure about a third or fourth chance.” I was grateful for the “not sure” part – that he left room for consideration. Maybe that was out of respect for the work that I do, which I think he understood involved offering “chances” beyond the third or fourth.

As we spoke, two other young people came to my mind, clients I work with, both of whom I met when they were homeless and helped to find housing. They both happen to be very angry with me at the moment, and are threatening to stop working with me. She, because I came down on her so hard about the lackadaisical way she’s been managing some important life issues, and he, because his application for outpatient psychiatric services fell through the cracks, and he feels that he’s on the verge of a breakdown – and I’m the most convenient person for him to blame.
What I wanted to ask my new acquaintance – I’ll call him the entrepreneur – is how he defines a chance, and how many chances he has had. What I suspect he meant by chance is an opportunity, having failed at life to some substantial degree – a poor career choice, a mis-step into drug abuse or criminality, a careless disregard of others, or simply a pattern of indulgence and inaction - a chance to get it right, to try again. Like most of us, he wanted to see the less fortunate have opportunities, but not unlimited opportunities.
This is the kind of sentiment I hear often from friends who work in the private sector.
They often express appreciation and respect that I work at providing support to the underclass, but they also express frustration that the recipients of my services, and of government and charitable assistance in general, do so little or nothing for it, that they don’t work, and that they seem to feel entitled to the fruits of the labors of others.
This is an understandable and unsettled batch of feelings, and it’s one that many, even most of my colleagues in the social services share. We know that while most of those we serve have legitimate needs, it is also true that many of them could do much more for themselves and for others. Third and fourth chances sometimes amount to little more than enabling dysfunction and dependency. It’s tempting, for example, after watching a young client earn an eviction from one apartment, then trash another, to simply say: Enough. Why not stop the supports at that point, allow the unrepentent to languish in homelessness, in addiction, in jail then, if they care so little for the opportunities offered.
But what if it’s the third “chance” that brings the change? Or the fourth. Suppose it’s the sixth time in rehab that finally leads to a life of sobriety? (Rehab very often fails to get the desired results on the first or second go-rounds). A big piece of my learning, as one who works with people, has been recognizing that failure is truly our greatest teacher, and it takes many courses in failure to learn how to succeed. This is so basic to all of our experience that it’s easy to overlook. Sure, we do the best we can to manage our failures. We call them practice, and we try to do away with most of them during periods we call school, and training, and youth. But still, when we grow – and growth doesn’t have to happen – it’s by constantly refining the way we play life, by attending to what we get wrong.
I’ve felt great pain over the years while helplessly watching young clients throw their lives away, to drugs or violence, or by their refusal or inability to develope insight. But I’ve also witnessed – so, so often – the miracle of a young human being coming into ownership of a life, and of a consciousness. It can take so long, can be gradual or sudden, and may come after all have given up hope, including that young person. How many chances is such a transformation worth?
But what really weights a conversation like this for me is shifting the way in which we look at chances. Because when I look at the life of my young entrepreneur and contrast it with the lives of my clients, I count the chances quite differently. He told me that he grew up in a stable and intact family. I count that as two chances for him, because the families of my two clients were neither stable nor intact. The entrepreneur made it through elementary and secondary schooling and earned a university degree. My clients’ lives were both so chaotic by the time they were in their teens, that it’s a wonder they were still even marginally attached to schools, and no wonder at all that they never completed high school. I’d say that that difference counts at least as a chance or two.
And I wonder if my entrepreneur was safe and secure from abuse and violence as a child. My clients both suffered the kind of experiences as children and youth that one of them experiences post traumatic stress disorder. The other might receive a similar diagnosis, if I could get her in front of a therapist. There’s no doubt that she’s suffered some very serious psychological wounds. Surely, these differences count as at least another couple of chances that one could either say the entrepreneur was granted, or the others were denied.
In our talk the other night, my young entrepreneur shared an insight he’d been gifted by a mentor. I can only paraphrase here, and hope that I’m communicating the essence of it. He suggested that in each of our lives there is a point at which we become aware of how the world has acted upon us. At this point, our powers of choice increase dramatically, we can begin to seek self-mastery, and to take the reins of our lives in hand. I absolutely agree that this point of self-awareness is a key juncture in a life, but I’m not at all sure that we all have a clear path to reaching this point.
The way I see it, my two clients were in deficit situations where chances are concerned, before their lives even started, long before they even approached the point where they could begin to understand who they are, and the nature of the forces that have acted upon them throughout their lives.
When I examine my own life, I count quite a few, very powerful chances that I was granted early on. When I was five years old, my father loaded our Chevrolet sedan with suitcases, a few pieces of furniture and my brother and I. He took to the highway and brought us to New York City. Detroit was never to be my home again, except for summer-long stays with relatives over the years. Looking back, I’ve come to see that move as a wonderful and life-changing “chance” that I received. That move, and others that followed over the years, granted me a freedom of motion that most people never have. I learned from those moves that I didn’t have to stay in a place because it was all I knew, or because my family was there. It was a powerful lesson that affected the course of my life.
I had literate and caring parents. (That my family dissolved when I was nine amounts to a loss of a chance by this reckoning, but it doesn’t cancel out the other. Besides which, my parents’ parting was absolutely a blessing of a chance, as they were both happier and saner – and far less angry – human beings apart than they were together. This is much more complex than simple math). I experienced living in Europe for over two years – and learning a second language – before I reached my teens. That I was uprooted from Detroit at an early age (and had the negative chance of being separated from a wonderful, extended family), counts as a positive chance for another reason, beside what I’ve already noted. Beginning in the mid-sixties, Detroit went through decades of decline that included race riots, a destroyed economy, a population that shrank by almost half (leaving parts of Detroit with the feel of a post-apocalyptic ghost town), and a drug-fueled, sky-rocketing level of crime and violence. A cousin of mine who got caught up in the latter once told me, “When those drugs hit the streets, it was like the wild west. Even the bad mutha-fuckas was scared to go out.”
I seriously question how I’d have emerged from an adolescence and young adulthood in that environment. But, as chance had it, I’d left Detroit by then. I was in New York City, and on my way to the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the finest and most exclusive prep schools in the world. The Exeter experience was another huge, positive “chance” I might easily have missed.
It happened that an administrator at an elite New York private school led an effort to extend access to the top tier of prep schools to students in the public school system. My junior high school was somehow chosen to be part of this effort, and our guidance counselor hand-picked students to take the SSAT’s, and I was one of them. I aced the test, and this administrator decided that I was Exeter material. I wasn’t much interested. Since 7th grade, I’d had my mind set on one of two specialty NY public schools. But the administrator convinced me to visit Exeter. He personally took me there on a weekend train trip (can you imagine?) where he'd arranged an interview by the head of admissions. Another thing. I’d only half-heartedly completed the Exeter application, and hadn’t submitted the required essay along with the rest of my application. I lied and said I mailed it, and was allowed to bring an essay along on the visit. I was offered admission on the spot. And, I was so blown away by the campus, by the acres and acres of ivy-covered buildings, that I abandoned my set plan and accepted. How many chances does all of that represent?
My summation of all of this, and my lived experience, which has exposed me to people at the top, bottom and various middles of our social order, is that creating a calculus of the human experience that is adequate to explain who is deserving and who not...well, it’s a tricky proposition. To try and set a bar at how many chances a person deserves is an effort I no longer try to make. Before I could attempt to do such a thing, I’d at the very least have to determine:  If limited myself to two, or three, or ten on a hundred “chances”,which of the many chances I’ve received would I be willing to give up? And I would challenge my young entrepreneur to consider the same.
I don’t intend this to come across as anything but respectful toward my young entrepreneur. I’m so impressed by his heart and his vigorous embrace of life; I even agree with most of his ideas. I was drawn into composing this essay only by what I perceive as a misperception, but which others will think was not. And I hope that if he reads it, he will gain something from that.
A final note is simply to underscore how little we have to say about the chances we receive or are denied. It think it’s generally true of human beings that, when our lives go very well, we’re tempted to claim full credit. And when our lives are miserable, we want to take no credit at all. And in all cases, the truth lies in between. But I love a line I heard on a television show recently. A character who’d been born with many advantages and had wasted them, was confronting the brother who’d made good. He said: “We were both born on third base. Stop pretending that you hit a home run!” Beautiful! Let us never be so arrogant as to forget those who strike out the first time at bat, or those who ride the bench, or sit in the stands, and never even get to bat, or those stuck out on the sidewalk, without even the price of admission.


  1. At our extended family's Passover seder the other night, I had the pleasure of sitting across the table from my husband's niece and her husband, with their 8-month-old baby on their laps. This baby is growing up, and her nature is being nurtured, in a world that is centered on her, and very responsive to her needs. I commented to my husband that seeing her with her parents made the importance of environment in providing early and lasting advantage crystal clear.

    I grew up with many advantages that I certainly didn't recognize as such at the time. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, although I didn't believe that someone "upstairs" was orchestrating things for me personally, I felt that my life was full of lucky breaks and amazing coincidences. I was, and am, blessed--by being born into a family, a place, a time, that could provide a secure upbringing; by marrying a kind man; by many other things. I have made many wrong choices and a few good ones. I have had many second chances.

    Even with every opportunity, it is not always easy to make the right choice in life. But I believe in the capacity of humans to change. Change occurs incrementally, by making small choices that give you the strength or lack of strength to deal with the choices that follow. Just as you are what you eat, you become what you do.

    1. Amen, Lucie! I love the point you make, that even with advantages and second chances, "it is not always easy to make the right choice in life." Yes. We need our chances, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes the benefit of the doubt. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. There is a Scripture passage that says if a man comes to church drunk, he should be reprimanded & sent home...The second time it happens, do the same thing...The third time he shows up to church drunk, he is to be sent away & not allowed back in the church...I think this is where much of the three strikes you're out stuff comes from...It is a very specific reference to a very specific problem, but I think it has travelled along through history & has become a rule, correct or no, for many situations...But this is often where people get their ideas from on this type of issue...Right or wrong...

    1. Yes, Sari. I think that's so true. On the same night that generated this post, there was another conversation about sin. Someone pointed out that most religious dietary restrictions originated as practical guidelines for avoiding disease. It wasn't that eating pork was morally bad. It was that eating pork greatly increased ones chances of becoming ill and dying a horrible death - going to Hell, in other words.
      And, just as you say, these guidelines have a way of becoming rules, by which people judge character and worthiness. I'm for giving the drunken church goer a break. His intentions were good, anyway. And maybe if he gets to listen to the sermon, he'll stop drinking!
      Thanks for weighing in, Sari!