As I’ve accumulated experience and some wisdom garnered through living life, one of the things that has happened is that I have learned that many clichés are based in truth. A cliché that has shown itself to be true a lot in the fifth decade of my life is that what goes around comes around.
I am beginning to see people I’ve observed along the way get their comeuppance. People who were up, have come down; people who were down, have come up. Some people were slow to develop and all of a sudden they are hot! hot! hot! Some people had early blazes of glory. They were it, the she-it, when we were in high school and college or early in our careers and then they fizzled. The people I thought were going to take the world by storm (including myself) didn’t. There were other people who achieved many things that none of us who knew them thought possible (by them).
In mid-life I’m beginning to see the rest of the story... sometimes even the end of the story. The other shoes are dropping. (Think Bernie Madoff.) Careers, marriages and lives end. Children grow up and their trajectory was not as cut and dry or clearly determined as it seemed from their upbringing.
I think of my friend whose son became a millionaire, upstanding citizen and all around positive guy. When he was a young child no one saw this in the cards for him not merely because we all lived in a working-class inner city neighborhood, but because his father (who my friend divorced early) was a stinker of a man (liar, womanizer, and worse). The other friend whose child seemed poised for significant success and who worked two+ jobs to get him in the toniest neighborhood with the best schools, raised a child who is a ne’er do well and hasn’t launched yet.
The seemingly loving marriages of more than one couple I knew who married in college, turned out to be full of betrayal, infidelity and cruelty. The virulent homophobe from my college and young activist days was gay and actively sexual all along.
You learn that much of what you saw was an illusion (again, think Bernie Madoff). You only saw the surface of the iceberg and not its deep underground terrain. In midlife, you now see the icebergs melting and floating away.
What’s most surprising, is that, except in one case and then only for a minute or two, seeing this come-uppance, seeing people reap what they sowed does not fill me with joy or even the desire to say “told you so” -- at least not much. Instead it causes pain. It is painful to see people you held in esteem, people you knew, people you thought were on the up-and-up, brought down. It is sad to see people die early. Even the people you didn’t like or who didn’t like you or who weren’t pleasant to you.
I am being purposely vague here because most of these stories are about people who are private citizens. They were just doing what human beings do. One story I can share because she was not a private citizen until recently, is the story of Dianne Wilkerson, former State Senator of Massachusetts who has been sentenced to 3 ½ years for taking $23,500 in bribes. She and former Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner, who was sentence to 3 years, were part of a sting operation, in which a local businessman was paid $35,000 by the FBI to offer them bribes in his effort to get a liquor license.
I first met Dianne when she enrolled her two sons in a voluntary desegregation program in which I worked. I saw her intermittently over the years because we had the same hairdresser. She was always sharp, dressed to the nines, hair impeccable, and manicured. She was always working. She was smart, committed and a gifted speaker and thinker. I fully expected her to be governor of Massachusetts one day; actually, I expected more than that for her. I thought she would be a politician on the national level.
This didn’t happen for a combination of reasons, including the fact that she was sloppy in her personal financial doings, made poor choices, more than a little proud (often veering toward arrogance), and had largely unwavering support from the community she represented who didn’t hold her accountable and stuck with her one too many times perhaps. A letter she wrote the federal judge a few days before her sentencing was published in local papers. Among its highlights were:
“I want to state clearly that I committed the crimes to which I pled guilty and I accept full responsibility for my actions. My actions were wrong and inexcusable.”
“I’ve lost everything material including my job, health insurance, pension, life insurance and my career.”
“I let myself down, my family and my community.”
“I caused great pain to many people. I am living now a day-to-day existence and I am desperate to start over.”
Dianne’s fall from grace is sad and tragic. It’s one thing when stories make the national news and you don’t know the people involved. It’s quite another when you know the people. When you can remember wanting to be like them, to have some of their star power.
Looking around, I can see that among my friends and acquaintances, those who were disciplined, ethical, lived within their means, who found companions with whom they were equally yoked and with whom they worked through tough times, are the people whose lives are still working and who can hold their heads up now. In general their lives have not been flashy but they have been suited for the long haul.
I've learned not to envy the lives of others because, usually, things are not what they seem. Living life with integrity, living life fully, defining success for oneself and doing the best you can is a good place to be.
This got me through my divorce, all of this praying to the God of karma. After all I had heard about this magical karma train since childhood and firmly believed in its existence. I knew Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were not real but that my karma train certainly was. After all, I had caught slight glimpses of others, fortunate and sometimes unfortunate, trips on the magic train.
From all of the pain, grief, and anger I’ve experienced in the past week, I’ve come to the conclusion that decisions matter:
- The friends you pick
- The career you take
- The person you marry
- What you say to others
- How you treat others
The actions you take, be it positive or negative, have consequences. Like Newton’s Law, for every action there is a direct and opposite reaction.
James Sullins, in Options, Choices, Consequences: They're Enough to Shape a Life, writes:
People who've consumed a big part of their life allotment often gaze back across their personal history and realize the early choices made sometimes controlled their entire lives, beginning the day the options were presented and the choice selected.
Many options appear to be of momentary duration, but once chosen can be life altering. Should I try that drug, or not? Should I pause to use birth control, or not? Should I drop out of school, or not? Go to college, or not? Fleeting moments, thoughtless choices, life fences built.
Good and plenty!
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