We all grew up with guys like Ryan Lochte: handsome, popular jocks who always had an entourage of dudes and girls. They were usually not the sharpest tools in the shed, but this didn’t seem to matter much to the adoring students and teachers who fawned over their athletic accomplishments and good looks.
They got away with all kinds of pranks and class disruptions while other less popular kids were slapped down. The excuse for these golden boys, no matter what they did, from being terribly rowdy at parties, not doing homework, or losing their car, was something like International Olympics Committee spokesman Mario Andrada’s statement. “We need to understand that these kids were trying to have fun…“But let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all times. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.”
That notion of a chosen few to be judged differently due to their popularity or social standing has long been a part of American life. Celebrities often seem to benefit from a pernicious double standard. They “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” with all sorts of authority figures in thrall to their patina of fame.
But there is a flip side to this worship of the rich and famous. Woe to the celebrity who gets caught doing something ridiculously foolish or criminally egregious. In such cases, the public giveth and the public taketh away. Not to mention corporate sponsors…
I am not the first person to note that original IOC apologia for Lochte et al rings hollow. First and foremost, Andrada calls them kids. Only Lochte is 32. Which means the statute of limitations for kid behavior is in effect. It is true that to vandalize a service station bathroom is not a capital crime. But to lie about it and then get caught on video is an invitation to a real multimedia frenzy.
I’m trying to separate my schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune), from the facts in regards to Ryan Lochte. Which is not easy. But his sudden plummet from lovable rascal to pathetic, fixated adolescent has a kind of justice to it.
Our tradition teaches us that everything we do has consequences. Coming up to the High Holy Days we are particularly cognizant of this time period as the commencement of a judgment process that culminates on Yom Kippur when God decides who shall live and who shall die. The evidence that God reviews is not our thoughts, but our deeds. It’s not what we meant to do or not do. It’s only about what choices we made.
There is no book of life and a book of death. God does not punish the evil and reward the innocent. Those are metaphors, images to help us feel more deeply about the dimensions of our own choices. But I do think God cares about our behavior. I do believe that any one person’s bad choices have implications for them and for others far on down the line. This notion of the deep reach of our actions is why repenting and forgiving are so crucial to the High Holy Days.
We are called upon to examine our behavior over this past year and acknowledge where we’ve fallen short. We are reminded of the implications of our misdeeds in regards to others. And we are called upon to surmount our own rush to judgment and forgive those seeking pardon.
So far, Ryan Lochte hasn’t apologized: to the Brazilian people, to the service station owner, to the other guys who were with him and got thrown under the bus, or to the American people whom he is supposed to be representing. All he’s done so far is to say he’s sorry for “not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning.” By me, that doesn’t count for much at all.
As one the people who watched the “popular” guys get it all, a la “Revenge of the Nerds”, I am happy to see a 2-dimensional punk laid low. But as a rabbi in his 60s, I think I’m ready to let it go. I hope and pray it’ll be that easy to find forgiveness for others – and for myself – this coming High Holy Days.