Every novel, play, movie, and TV episode is the same. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones they all have three parts. The first act introduces the protagonist and the major conflict he needs to address. The second finds him torn down by difficulties he either creates himself or has visited upon him. The protagonist digs deep into his psyche, revisits what truly matters, recommits to that in which he once believed, and reinvents himself. If the work is done sincerely and well, the third act finds him stronger than ever, at one with his true self, and with redemption earned. The cowboy rides into the sunset, lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, and the mother and child hug as the last page is turned, the curtain falls, or the screen fades to black.
American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was suggesting that Americans want to avoid the hard work of existential angst and introspection. Instead, they seek short cuts from the first to third acts. Fitzgerald observed, “The tragedy of these men was that nothing in their lives had really bitten deep at all.” They want rewards without cost, rights without responsibilities, and redemption without reflection.
Sadly, too many examples afford credence to Fitzgerald’s observation. Consider Richard Nixon. He used dirty tricks to win the presidency in 1968 and again 1972. He then illegally spied upon and attacked enemies whom he considered anyone who disagreed with him or his worldview. He treated questions as disloyalty, senior staff as attack dogs, the constitution as an annoyance, and those he was there to serve as saps. Watergate was unique only because he got caught.
After resigning in disgrace, he tried to ignite his third act by writing a number of books but it didn’t work. In interviews and his memoirs, he admitted mistakes and regret for having let Americans down but insisted that Watergate was simply a low rent burglary that should never have destroyed a presidency. He could never admit that it was never really about the break in. Rather, the scandal centred upon the clumsy attempts to cover up and manage mistakes, his reckless disrespect for political culture and proper process, and his flaunting of the spirit as much as the letter of the law.
Americans instinctively recognized that Nixon was attempting to pull a Fitzgerald and skip from acts one to three. They had none of it. They have still not forgiven him. For Richard Nixon, there has been no redemption.
Redemption has no shortcuts. This is a tough truth. We have all done something for which we feel regret and perhaps shame. To move forward there is simply no option save entering the dark and difficult second act and then demonstrating, not just talking about, fundamental change. In January 2011, Dr. Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today, “We must fully recognize that we’ve done wrong; fully accept responsibility for having done it; determine never to do it again; apologize to those we’ve done it to (if appropriate); and resolve to aim at improving ourselves in the general direction of good.”
We can’t say we’re sorry if we don’t really mean it and it won’t matter anyway if we can’t or won’t change. We can’t fool others and, in the end, we can’t fool ourselves. After all, if a faulty steering wheel put us in the ditch, then saying sorry without fixing the wheel will have us off the road again in no time. We become childhood’s refugees, blaming colleagues, bosses, staff, parents, spouses, the stars, an interfering or absent God, and anything and anyone but ourselves. Our families, organizations, or companies, unfortunately and unfairly, pay the highest price for our obstinacy. In such circumstances we deserve to be removed from the driver’s seat through dismissal, divorce, social exile, or, in Nixon’s case, resignation.
For what it’s worth, I think Fitzgerald was wrong. I sincerely believe that most of us are willing and capable of undertaking a second act journey. Right now there are many among us struggling to rescue relationships, marriages, leadership positions, and ultimately themselves. Celebrate them. But watch warily. Those willing to do the work with humility and sincerity, and who are of sufficiently sound moral rectitude, will find old enablers and habits gone but ultimately see second act efforts rewarded with forgiveness earned and redemption deserved.
May we live and work with these people. May we be these people.
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