Recently, for a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about redemption. To be clear, what I mean is the restoration of one’s reputation and credibility as a person in general or even in a specific circumstance such as work or with a particular loved one. Reputation, as they say, takes a lifetime to build but can be destroyed in a second. To use a financial analogy, one incident of real or perceived bad behavior can wipe out all of your “good behavior” credits. They call it “credibility” for a good reason. Is redemption ever really possible and, if so, under which circumstances? And, ultimately, what is redemption, what does it mean?
I’d argue that under some less serious circumstances, repairing your reputation is possible. For example, if you have a good track record at work but pass through a months long period in which you display a surly attitude and do the bare-ass minimum to get by, you should know that you’ve just flushed your professional reputation down the toilet. You can regain your reputation, but only after an extended period (years, not months) of explicit engagement and professional behavior. Eventually, your bout of crap performance will be a distant memory although those with long memories may still harbor faint doubts regarding your stability. Or, you can switch jobs and start afresh, but hopefully your shit attitude will have improved pronto because you’re now in situation where you have everything to prove. If you work hard in either case, you will have effectively reestablished your professional reputation. However, this is more about your previous behavior being forgotten than redemption.
What about more serious “offences”? Can a multitude of good works effectively erase one bad action? In the strictest sense, the answer to that question is “no”. If, for example, you are caught cheating on your spouse, the following may happen: He or she may decide to end the relationship so no redemption, no second chances. Or they may decide to try to “work it out”. And maybe, after years of devotion, that spouse may forgive you…but they will never forget. Nothing you can do will ever make them forget. You’ve “redeemed” the relationship, but it’s a different relationship than the one you had before. So it would seem that redemption is not about erasing a bad act, it’s more about tipping the scales so that the good far outweighs the bad.
What about even more serious offences? Can you ever tip the scales favorably enough? Roman Polanski infamously committed a very heinous crime in the early 70s and consequentially fled the US to avoid prosecution (say what you will about the US Justice department – and there is plenty to criticize – but in this particular case they are on the right side of history). Ever since, or at least until recently, sycophants, hypocrites and the morally challenged have been lining up to provide mitigating circumstances for the inexcusable. Worse still, Polanski has done little to demonstrate any remorse. To Polanski’s defenders, his artistic talent “redeems” him which I guess means that common mores and laws don’t apply if you directed Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. At this level of this notoriety, the only meaningful and possible redemption Polanski could hope for is with his conscious. Which apparently means very little to him if we can take his public persona at face value. He is a person that did a terrible thing, doesn’t seem to be remorseful and hasn’t done anything of any redeeming moral value before, during or after the incident, his artistic merits notwithstanding.
What about the “slap heard ’round the world”? Will Smith made himself a subject of ridicule; mentally weak and unstable. Yes, attacking a smaller, weaker man in front of a worldwide audience is bad, but what’s worse is the “why”. It was a shitty joke that, on the offensiveness scale, rated probably a 5 or 6. Will slapped Chris Rock after he saw that his wife was offended. Then, when yelling at Rock, he made it all about his pride. Worse, when accepting his award, he gave some self-aggrandizing non-apology that didn’t mention Rock. It was pathetic; Will looked exactly like a man who didn’t know how to be a man.
Let me be clear, I don’t think that Will Smith is bad person. We all have off days when we do a thing or multiple things we deeply regret. And, on that day, Will comprehensively torpedoed his reputation. What is important for him, and all of us, is to make an honest assessment of the damage we caused so we can take actions to mend bridges with those we have offended and repair our reputations. To do this one has to act with complete integrity. So what can Will do? The easiest first step is to make a meaningful, credible apology to Chris Rock. Mend that bridge. That will help repair his reputation somewhat, however as a man and more importantly as a father he needs to address what seems to be an unhealthy power dynamic in his relationship.
I’m not judging polyamory or people with open relationships. If it works for some people, I’m all for it. It’s more about judging a relationship that isn’t healthy. The power balance in any couple is never perfect, and it often changes or evolves over time. What is apparent in Jada’s very, very public airing of their dirty laundry is that she all about tipping the scales in her favor. The multiple mentions of past lovers and how she misses them and, lest we forget, carrying on a relationship with troubled young man who was her son’s friend. This is not just humiliating to Will, it’s deeply humiliating to her son. (Yes, Will was sleeping with other women, but he always keeps it on the DL. Imagine if Will carried on a relationship with one of his daughter’s friends. It would be beyond gross). Will can’t control how Jada acts nor should he try to control her. He can, however, control his reactions to her behavior.
As a man, and more importantly as a father to both of his kids, at what point does he call her out on unacceptable behavior? It’s one thing to swallow humiliation because deep down you don’t love yourself and engage in a relationship with a very skewed power dynamic. It’s another thing to accept it when you have kids and it causes you to round around acting unstable. He needs to take a very clear look at his relationship and make the difficult decision to end it (romantically, at least) if it’s not serving the best interests of his family. Acting with integrity almost always means taking the harder path. It’s easy to give some BS excuse/apology about “wanting to a better person”, what’s hard is taking the steps to be better person.
In overall scheme of things, his reputation to the outside world is far less important than doing what is right and best for his family. If he takes the necessary actions, his reputation will repair itself. In the end, acting with integrity allows you to redeem yourself, which is a very powerful thing. If you can look in the mirror without shame or self-loathing, your state of mind will guide to the correct actions.