Ever since “liberal” became a bad word in America, there has been a growing tendency to pass judgment on other people by using this four-word zinger: “Everybody has a choice.” This is to say that no matter what situation one finds oneself in, there is always a right or wrong response, and if one chooses the wrong response, then, well, that person must take responsibility for his or her actions. This rings especially true among certain religious types, who characterize God as the beneficent Creator who bestowed upon us this ultimate freedom – to choose good or evil.
Such a worldview reduces the complexity of human nature to a simple mantra that is dismissive of an individual’s life conditions. It conveys utter ignorance and essentially serves to impose a convenient moral imperative and make the person who adopts it feel superior and justified. It represents a throwback mentality not unlike that of the Inquisition or Nazism.
Fortunately, this trend is most likely just a natural swing of the political pendulum as many Americans feel unsettled in the face of so many new threats to their status quo. Most people are not that simplistic, and they are basically compassionate and forgiving. We tend to regard human error as a soul-growing experience.
Take the town of Freeport, for instance. Amy Smith, a thin, frail, middle-aged woman, had a condition, undiagnosed at the time, that was characterized by periodic guttural outbursts of foul language along with involuntary physical spasms in which she would suddenly lose control of her body, flinging her arms, hands, legs, or feet in all directions. Despite her obscene outbursts, she was a treasured anomaly among the adults of the town. They accepted and protected that which they could not understand.
However, Amy’s episodes were a source of great entertainment for 10-year-old Paul Henry and his friend John Green, who, when no one was around, would practice that dance, flailing their limbs and contorting their bodies outrageously while uttering the foulest language. It was their secret game.
Great old maple and oak trees lined Main Street in Freeport, providing dense green shade in late June. From Paul’s front porch, he and John had spied on Amy many times as she walked this street to and from the neighborhood corner store. It was spectacular to see her spasmodically throw her grocery bags in the air, strewing the contents onto the sidewalk and front lawns, and the boys could barely contain themselves. One evening, they made a plan that might send her into the ultimate frenzy.
There in the generous arms of the great Red Maple over the terrace and gray-slated sidewalk of Main Street, Paul and John perched with red and blue water balloons in hand. The plan was not to hit her with them, but to land them near her so she would get splashed at the ankles, thus turning her into a real whirling dervish.
But on this evening, as Amy approached, there was no dance. There under the canopy of the great tree, she paused, as if holding her breath, and suddenly looked straight up at the boys. In that moment, Paul and John froze, held by her steady, clear eyes that seemed to say, “I know you. You are part of all this that is ours.”
On the outskirts of Freeport, Grady Daniels lived with his mother and father and five siblings in a two-bedroom house. His father was a highly skilled independent carpenter by day, the drunken town clown by night, and his mom, after taking care of the little kids, stayed up by the TV every night making sure he got home from the bars and was not in jail. Grady’s older brother Randy had dropped out of high school. He was a drunk, too, and liked to pick fights with the college students in the alleys behind the bars downtown. Grady grew to drink also, but he was never inclined to showboating or flamboyance. At age seventeen, he was a dreamy-eyed, mellow, good-natured young man. Late one night when he was walking home drunk, Grady stumbled in front of a tractor-trailer on the highway and was killed instantly.
Debbie Patterson’s parents, who were very socially active, bought a house in the new developments on the lakefront in Freeport. Never satisfied with their place in the world, they pursued higher society by joining various clubs in and around town. It was a commitment that took up a lot of their time; hence, Debbie was left to take care of her younger siblings on many nights. She had strict orders to have no visitors of the male persuasion. Debbie, a sophomore at Freeport High School, had matured not only as a responsible older sibling, but also as a biological specimen. She was hot, and everyone knew it. Senior Ricky Dubois knew it, and, as captain of the basketball team, it was his perceived duty to pursue it. One frigid and snowy Saturday night in January, with her parents out late at the country club for a fundraiser and the kids already in bed, Debbie heard a knock at her window. She opened the door and let Ricky in from the cold. There would be spring, then summer, and then in the fall she would be a 17-year-old single mother.
Jimmy Jones was a high-strung kid. Having lost his father in a car wreck, he worried a lot, especially when his mother was late coming home from work. In general, he was a thoughtful and generous person who was affected profoundly by dramatic TV shows and movies. But as he grew older, he had trouble controlling his temper, and he was prone to throwing brief tantrums over minor issues, like a stuck drawer, bad pool shot, or dropped toothbrush. One day while playing basketball with friends, he was accidently slapped in the face by an opposing player. He reacted instantly and violently, punching him in the face and shattering his nose.
So what about accountability and personal responsibility, and about choosing between good and evil? On that lonely winter night, did Debbie really have a choice about opening that door? Did Grady really choose to drink, and to venture onto a dark, high-speed roadway late at night while drunk out of his mind? Did Jimmy Jones choose to punch the face of his friend? And why did Paul and John choose not to drop the bomb in that moment of stark recognition?
I, for one, do not choose to judge. I’d rather just wish them well.