All of us make mistakes. I’ve made a few (thousand) in my life, and continue to make them on a daily basis. Some are inconsequential, like typographical errors in my blog or miscalculating the supplies needed for a day’s work. Others have been memorable, like that pint of apricot brandy I agreed to in the autumn of 1964, or the decision to keep driving a logging road on California’s “lost coast” in a Toyota. And of course there are the embarassing mistakes: calling a person by the wrong name, showing up at the wrong time, or discovering that, when the invitation says “cruising casual”, they may not mean tee-shirts and sperrys.
All these mistakes are easily overcome. Closer attention while editing, a little more caution in the face of new experiences, a willingness to swallow hard and apologize, and life goes on. We laugh, admit an error and ask forgiveness. If we’re lucky, all is forgiven, and soon it’s forgotten as well.
Other mistakes loom larger, and bring more serious consequences. Putting diesel into a car’s gas tank, forgetting to unplug the computer during a thunderstorm or neglecting to cancel just one stolen credit card can cost as much in peace of mind as dollars, but those dollars count. And just a step up the scale, mistakes can damage lives forever. Deciding to leave a child unattended for “just a moment”, neglecting to make that trip to the doctor or trusting someone who proves in the end to be eminently untrustworthy may be mistakes, but they are of a different order of magnitude. It still may be possible to recover, but the process can be long and excruciatingly painful.
Whether former Presidential candidate John Edwards will recover from his months-long binge of self-proclaimed mistake-making remains to be seen. Edwards didn’t simply show up wearing black tie at a white tie event. He left his entire life, including his wife, his children and the Democratic party unattended for “just a moment” while he carried on an affair with Rielle Hunter. Whether he persuaded, allowed or demanded his wife participate in maintaining secrecy about the affair is uncertain. What is quite clear is that he carried on the affair while touting his family life as an indication of his character and qualification for office, not to mention involving his wife and campaign staff in a coverup.
Edwards’ own words tell the tale. In a March 27 interview with Katie Couric, he said,
“I think every single candidate for president, Republican and Democratic have lives, personal lives, that indicate something about what kind of human being they are. And I think it is a fair evaluation for America to engage in, to look at, what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we’d make.”
On August 8, Edwards provided a statement regarding his personal life which included this:
“I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs. I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. Although I was honest in every painful detail with my family, I did not tell the public. When a supermarket tabloid told a version of the story, I used the fact that the story contained many falsities to deny it. But being 99% honest is no longer enough.”
If Edwards has made a new commitment to 100% honesty, one of his first actions should be to eliminate the word “mistake” from his statements, and substitute “miscalculation”. His behavior during the affair and in the months that followed was not unintentional or accidental. It was calculating, cynical in the extreme and utterly devoid of regard for others. There is a word for such behavior, particularly when it is accompanied by self-absorption, intolerance of other viewpoints, and a firm belief that one lives outside the bounds of moral and ethical standards. The word is narcissistic, and it is a word that Edwards himself chose to use during his interview with Bob Woodruff on ABC’s Nightline:
“I went from being a young Senator to being considered for Vice President, running for President…becoming a national public figure, all of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you’re invincible and there will be no consequences.
Like Narcissus gazing into his pool, full of admiration for his own image and oblivious to the world around him, Edwards became enthralled with some of the most common illusions of life: that his behavior was excusable because it was his behavior, that others existed only to serve his purposes, and that his own cleverness and agility would prevent others from discovering his secrets.
Certainly he isn’t the first to entertain such illusions, and he won’t be the last. Anyone who takes a peek at the personal qualities catalogued in the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder probably recognizes a person or two from his or her own life. It may be a workplace supervisor who demands constant adulation and explodes at the first hint of criticism. It may be a partner who requires constant attention, but seems incapable of giving attention in return. It can be a co-worker, clever beyond words and addicted to proving his superiority at the expense of others. In nearly every case, there is a secret of one sort or another, and a person utterly convinced that their secret is safe, known only to themselves, and their image in the pool.
Life being what is it, discovery does happen. Sometimes, carelessness born of misplaced confidence provides a clue to the truth. Occasionally, someone less self-absorbed sees the discrepancies between image and reality and demands an explanation. Now and then, simple serendipity casts an unexpected stone or two into the mirror-like pool of self-absorption. As its effects ripple across the beloved image and distort its superficial perfection, even the most dedicated narcissist may glance up, bemused, wondering who dares disturb his languid contemptation.
Whether anything changes after such a moment of discovery is never certain. In the case of Edwards, asked if he thought his political career would end because of his decisions, he said, “I see no end. I don’t think anything’s ended. My Lord and my wife have forgiven me, so I’m going to move on.”
I’m not entirely certain what I think of Edward’s statement, but I am certain of this. Narcissus would be proud.
Copyright © 2008 Linda L. Leinen. All rights reserved.
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