Notes from the Perimeter

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I was quite shocked last week when I didn’t win the Megagazillions jackpot of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. I could have used the money. Like many folks, I have this notion that wealth, especially the mind-boggling in-your-dreams riches-beyond-compare variety, would shelter me from life’s ill winds. Despite the cautionary tales about how often lottery winners end up broke, divorced and self-medicated, this belief persists. However, when I heard the news about the death of Ted Kennedy, I paused to reflect upon the arc of his life, one of money, access and advantage. And I considered how little we, the body politic, value true courage, which, in part, means having the audacity to endure.

Ted Kennedy’s life was a study in contrasts: vast privilege and crushing responsibilities, bountiful accomplishments and terrible loss, grievous sins and ultimate redemption. Time and again he suffered events of such tragic nature as to devastate the most hardy soul: among them the assassinations of two brothers and the death of a beloved nephew. However, I would surmise that perhaps the hardest burdens to bear were of his own making: the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and that period when his dissolute behavior cast a shameful shadow over the family name.

What does it mean to make terrible mistakes? What process is set in motion by the struggle to be worthy of forgiveness, make amends and rise above one’s defects? We seldom ask that question of those to whom we grant essentially unlimited power. And I believe we should.

It has long been a sort of running joke that we expect our politicians to stop making any notable errors of judgment around the time they hit fifteen. Really. The prohibition is so strong that it results in unintentionally hilarious evasions, such as Bill Clinton’s failure to inhale. The conventional wisdom seems to go: character should be solidified by then and, as we all know, sterling moral fortitude means never having to say you’re sorry.

Well, I don’t know about you but I certainly wouldn’t want my adult persona and values to been set in stone by late adolescence. Not hardly. How can any of us be redeemed if our lives are blameless? I’m pretty satisfied, here in the latter part of my life, with the way I turned out but it took the chemistry of disappointment, grave blunders, heartbreak and regret to transform into a semblance of wisdom and fortitude.

Much has been written about Ted Kennedy’s devotion to the disadvantaged, his commitment to public service, his love for friends and family, dogs and boat, his thoughtfulness and joie de vivre. But for me, those admirable qualities don’t preclude Ted Kennedy’s life from being a cautionary tale. All of his wealth and privilege couldn’t protect him from the consequences his own imperfect nature. Yet somehow he found the strength to defeat his worst enemy: himself. He discovered the courage to express true remorse, acknowledge his failings with an unflinching honesty, and evolve. By the end I believe he reached a true state of grace: demons vanquished, the lead of his shortcomings transmuted into gold. Ted Kennedy endured, and, in enduring, found redemption.

His finally was a heroic life, a triumphal tale of trials met and conquered. Within a legacy rich in achievement, this will stand as his greatest.