A Word of Caution for Change

(December 2011, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)

I apologize, but I am not writing a “how-to” kind of article this month. Rather, this is something I feel just needs to be said.

Like many of you, I have been rather disturbed by the events disclosed at Penn State University. I hate the reality the boys who were involved now have to live with. I am sad for the parents who felt or knew something was going wrong for their children and could get no one to listen. I am frustrated by the lack of accountability the adults shared with one another. I am stunned once again by the reality of living in this broken world, and feel myself gripping my covers a little tighter as I wonder afresh exactly who may be trusted, and do I really know those whom I think I know.

I listen to sports radio. On one particular radio show, JoePa was referred to having lived with his head stuck in the sand. Honestly, I have trouble believing that happened. I have trouble reconciling that someone could walk away from witnessing a child being harmed and not reporting it. I am not saying it could not happen, just that I have trouble accepting it without wanting to do irreparable damage to a tree with a baseball bat. But what I have no trouble accepting is someone walking away thinking, “it’s none of my business,” or worse, “it’s not for me to say anything,” or “it’s not for me to judge.” What I can see is a group of men sitting around a room, quiet, knowing something needs to be done, and one saying, “Coach, don’t you think we need to do or say something?” and someone saying, “I brought this up to him; he said he’d take care of it, and that’s all that needs to be said and done right now.”

For some reason, we believe that any further accountability would be disrespectful. Excuse me, but when did respect trump truth? Yet that is what happens time and time again. We say by our actions (or inactions) that respect is more foundational, more important, than truth. When we know that someone needs accountability (rather than patience and another chance to address their problem) and choose to stay quiet because it would be “improper” to say anything (“it is disrespectful, it betrays their dignity”), it is wrong, and it makes the situation worse. I’m sorry, but the one who needs help is not the only one in the situation who needs our respect and dignity (!!)—there are the ones being damaged who need an advocate, who need to be given respect and dignity just as equally, if not more. Staying quiet at that point is a greater disrespect.

Relationships are messy. Enacting justice is messy. Advocating for another is messy. Being a champion can be a rather messy and painful ordeal. But, dadgumit, in needs to be done! Truth, and the pursuit of truth, must be more foundational, must have more value, than this respect-at-all-costs mentality. The price being paid for respect and dignity at Penn State is too high, and unnecessary. Humble and gracious truth should have been purchased much earlier than it was.

I believe in dealing with the truth, in a gracious and respectful way, in a manner that treats the truth-receiver with dignity; but the truth nonetheless.

If there is any change we can embrace from this whole horror, may it be that we will speak the truth in love to one another. And may we do so much, much sooner than later.

Please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.