By the Book. That’s the name of Joe Paterno’s autobiography. How, then, could someone revered as an icon of integrity, honesty and morality turn a blind eye to years of alleged rape happening in his own locker room? Joe reported a sexual abuse incident to his athletic director. He did what he was legally obligated to do. He went by the book.
Jerry Sandusky allegedly sexually abused dozens of young boys, luring them in with the glamour of Penn State football. He is seen as a sick pervert who set up a charity to prey on vulnerable kids. Viewed with compassion, though, he can be seen as someone who cares about children so much that he set up a charity for the underprivileged. However, since he also probably felt unspeakable shame for his actions, perhaps in his mind his charity partially atoned for his guilt. The lives he helped somehow offset the lives he destroyed.
We don’t know how Sandusky and Paterno rationalized their behavior. They likely harbored guilt for years and it finally crashed down on them. The Penn State giant has toppled, and if we’re honest, we have to admit that part of us relishes it. As the giant bleeds we feel secret relief, an expiation of our own personal guilt, the darkness we’ve hidden. To minimize our guilt we compare. “At least I’m not that bad—I would have gone to the police. I’ve only fooled around a bit on the side—I would never rape little kids.” As long as we proclaim others guilty, we don’t have to look at our own guilt. They become our scapegoats, our sacrificial lambs that keep us safe as we hide in our false sense of innocence.
We all make excuses. We know we’re doing it because we feel that twinge inside.
When we do something wrong we feel guilty, and like the criminal who returns to the scene of the crime secretly hoping to get caught, internalized guilt demands punishment. We evade our guilt with addictions such as drinking, overeating and facebooking. Perhaps we feel guilty about something wrong we did, someone we hurt, or, as in Paterno’s case, we failed to act when we should have. Joe Pa is every man. Jerry Sandusky is every man. We are all Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky.
An oft-heard phrase is, “How could this have happened?” But the opposite is closer to the truth. How could this not have happened? In 25 years as a psychotherapist, the most comprehensive thought system I’ve found to explain human behavior is A Course in Miracles. It states that guilt is the prime motivator for virtually all human behavior, even those behaviors that appear loving on the surface. The source of our guilt is that we mistakenly identify ourselves as separate bodies, rather than recognize the oneness of humanity. We are spirit, but when we believe we are separate we must compete, compare and capture our piece of the pie. The world’s resources are scarce, so when one person gets something it’s necessarily stripped from someone else. Everything we do is done to get something from someone else, even when we think we’re doing things from love.
Tribal allegiance is normally seen as a healthy source of pride. Yet A Course in Miracles challenges this assumption and states we form relationships to make us feel special and ward off our inherit sense of unworthiness and guilt. This dynamic is seen in the cheer “We are Penn State!” As Joe Pa comforted his supporters from his living room window he reiterated the pride of the lions’ motto. “We are Penn State!” This means we are Penn State and you’re not. This means we are better than you. This means our share of the goods is bigger than yours.
Joe Pa’s self worth was tied to his image as the venerable icon of a respected empire. Until he testifies, we won’t know what he was thinking, but it could have been along these lines. “I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to this program, and no one is going to tarnish Penn State’s reputation. If my defensive coordinator quietly retires he won’t stain our image. After all, I’m paid to keep Penn State on top, therefore I’m doing my job.”
No matter how much we rationalize, though, when we don’t face our guilt, make changes, and forgive ourselves, our shame must inevitably return to haunt us. Our world crashes down on us as we are fired, get divorced, file bankruptcy, etc. Joe Pa’s legacy is forever marred by ignominy, and children’s lives have been shattered.
Since the tragedy has already happened, however, A Course in Miracles offers a way out of the mess Penn State’s in—forgiveness. A Course in Miracles reminds us that we are lovable by virtue of being human, not by anything we have achieved. Conversely, we are lovable in spite of anything we’ve done. Sexual abuse is inexcusable but not unforgivable. Forgiveness does not mean that Jerry Sandusky should walk if he’s found guilty. Forgiveness means we look at the love in him, the part that really does care about kids. We help him heal the shame that led him to attack the very kids he cares for. We help him see that the love and power he tried to get from these kids is available by loving himself first. If Jerry had loved himself, he would never have hurt those children. If Joe Pa had fully loved himself he would never have pursued success at any cost.
Everyone in this tragedy needs love and forgiveness—the children as well as Penn State administrators, Joe Paterno, and Jerry Sandusky. No one heals while guilt and hatred find a home in his heart.