No Joke: At Last, A Willingness To Forgive

A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker alludes to the seemingly endless digital indiscretions of mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.

Image “Do you promise to stand by him through humiliating revelation after humiliating revelation, and then—once you’re sure it couldn’t possibly get any worse—when even more humiliating revelations come to light?”

An article in the NY Daily News quotes Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the new head of the state district attorney’s association, who states that “Weiner is incapable of telling the truth; Spitzer broke the law and was never held accountable for it — and now both of them are asking for the public to trust them again.”

And yet, among at least one segment of voters, all is not lost for the two fallen political titans.

The New York Times reports that “black voters are far more likely than white voters to view Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Weiner favorably, and more likely to say they deserve a second chance. And the statistical evidence is reinforced on the campaign trail: last week, for example, the predominantly black audience at a mayoral forum in Laurelton, Queens, cheered Mr. Weiner and jeered at another candidate, George T. McDonald, a Republican, who called Mr. Weiner a freak.”

In their efforts to reach out to African-American votes, both candidates continue to be well received. The Times article noted that “Interviews with black ministers, political leaders, scholars and voters suggest two major factors at work: an emphasis in black congregations on forgiveness and redemption, and an experience, particularly among older black voters, of having seen their revered leaders embroiled in scandal.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, himself no stranger to examination and some would say evisceration by the media noted, “You can’t think of any major black leader that did not have some kind of legal or other kind of media attack, so we are not as prone to believe the attacks as other communities.”  

 Whether Candidates Spitzer and Weiner can rise above their difficulties remains to be seen. For the moment at least, they have found some small measure of forgiveness.


“How can I come to understand that the question is not the public’s capacity to forgive, but my own capacity to exercise sound judgment and regard for others?’ Peggy Noonan poses this question in her recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “How to Find Grace After Disgrace.”




Former UK Secretary of State for War John Profumo

Ms. Noonan suggests that politicians undone by shame or scandal must answer that question first before they can begin the arduous task of rebuilding their reputations, and ultimately, their careers. Her essay underscores the value of what we are seeking to discover: insights into authentic ways that people can use to recover and rebuild after life altering mistakes.

Her piece recounts the fate of  prominent British politician John Profumo, a former Secretary of State for War during the Cold War, who became embroiled in a public downfall and betrayal brought on by his adulterous affair with a professional escort who was also involved with the Soviet military attaché in London. Following the episode, Profumo resigned in disgrace. Her point was that rather than retreat in disgrace, Profumo’s humble, private, focus on helping those in great need and making a powerful positive difference in their lives are what defined his legacy.

This makes us recall our interview with Dr. Serene Jones, the president of the Union Theological Seminary. Her view of one pathway to redemption after one suffers a great mistake is the ability to find new meaning in what has happened and use it as a driving force to rebuild a life. 

In essence, she told us that in order to authentically rebuild, there must be recognition that the person who was is no more. Without finding the deep meaning in what has occurred it is difficult if not impossible to strengthen one’s character and in her words, “create your life anew”.

Ms. Noonan cites Profumo as a contrast to Weiner, Spitzer, et al (we assume former SC Gov. Sanford, as well). These are fallen politicians who want, request and expect forgiveness from the electorate. As public figures used to believing in themselves and their ability to marshal support from people, that attitude makes a certain kind of sense. Their resilience, toughness, and commitment to try again could even be seen as admirable.

But through clear-eyed, thoughtful people like Serene Jones and Peggy Noonan, we are also reminded that true grace requires something much more.

A Public Shaming in the Digital Town Square

In our book, Falling To Grace, we are examining people who attain incredible, breakthrough success, only to stumble, fall and hit rock bottom, because of  their own behavior, unethical actions, self destructive tendencies and more.  There are many ways to fall. But what interests us is not actually the fall itself. What we want to understand is how people who have been publicly vilified and criticized, embarrassed and humiliated, often faced with the loss of everything that they built, have managed to their way back in ways that are meaningful and successful. How these individuals find the strength and capacity to renew themselves in authentic ways can be a source of learning for all of us.


That is why we find it interesting to watch the ongoing spectacle of celebrity chef Paula Deen’s termination by the Food Network as her career unravels in the wake of racist attitudes and offensive remarks alleged in a deposition. When asked if she had ever used the N word, she said “Yes, but a long time ago.” In effect, yes but. When asked about this in the media, she offered up the lame excuses that she was old and from the South.

We will be curious to see how and whether Paula Deen begins to incorporate the process of redemption that we have identified in others. This process typically starts with honesty. We are not sure that she is following that course. What we have observed so far is a lack of authenticity.

In an article on the UK site, The Daily Mail, Deen tried to explain away whites’ “prejudice against blacks” as reciprocal with her perception of blacks’ prejudice against whites.

As to her ancestors’ slaveholding past before the Civil War, Deen offered this rationalization: “Back then, black folk were such integral part of our lives, they were like our family, and for that reason, we didn’t see ourselves as being prejudiced.”

Wow! These were people who had no rights or freedoms, people that her ancestors owned!

Basically, this is a woman who has dug he own professional grave with her tongue. She rationalizes, obfuscates and dissembles. And the media go after it like a school of hungry piranha in a shallow duck pond. Consider that:

1. She did not own up to her misdeeds.

2. When it was impossible to deny them, she attempted to minimize them by pointing fingers at others.

3. When that activity brought on more disgrace and ridicule, she finally issued a tearful apology, after the fact, of course.

4. She is tone deaf and only made a lukewarm effort to show remorse when her back was against the wall.

Perhaps this whole experience will lead to a real reckoning for her, an understanding that she is not above her behavior. We will see. Our friend, noted psychiatrist, Dr. Michael DeMeo, has referred us to a body of psychological research that shows how the accumulation of major wealth, power and significant success can lead to personality traits of narcissism, including arrogance and a lack of empathy for those who have less. For these individuals, a sharp and sudden downfall may be the only way to break this pattern and understand the pain they have inflicted on others.

Perhaps this experience will truly catalyze Paula Deen to examine and reassess her attitudes, as well. Or maybe she will just keep apologizing. According to Dan Ariely,,  the brilliant  behavioral economist at Duke ,that strategy can work. In his column in The Wall Street Journal this week, Ariely writes about the value of saying you’re sorry, and notes:

“In experiments, we found that saying sorry works rather well, and it works even if people don’t mean it. It works even if the person from whom you ask forgiveness knows you don’t really mean it. The point is that, when someone says he or she was wrong and asks forgiveness, it’s hard to keep on being mad at them.”

I guess we will just have to see if Paula Deen can find the recipe for pursuing a real process of redemption, or just continue on the media apology trail. And we will then have to see if America has the stomach for it!

Part 3: The Instinct to Forgive – Stop Swallowing the Poison Pill

by Michael DeMeo, M.D.
Another reason for humanity’s capacity to forgive may again have evolved due to the need to experience serenity – the absence of unnecessary experiences of fear, guilt, shame and anger. Healthy anger is an adaptive and necessary emotion. People that do not experience it in an appropriate, moderate and adaptive way are at quite a disadvantage. If someone breaks the social contract, say does something to me that is hurtful, I should feel the appropriate amount of anger, seek to resolve the problem with my friend by letting him know what he did, how I feel, and ask him to make amends and see if he commits himself to not do it again. If that works out I stop feeling angry and the relationship improves. If he keeps on doing it my anger should increase to the point that I consider ending our relationship.

Resentment occurs when I have the perception that someone is offending or injuring me and I believe I cannot do anything about it or I am actually powerless to do anything about it. I begin to feel angry, afraid, hopeless, helpless, and there is a diminishment of my feeling of worth and power (shame). I try not to think about it, but the thought of what has happened to me keeps on coming up in my mind and I re-experience these distressing emotions. I’m angry but there is nothing I can do to resolve my anger. This is resentment. I may think about ways to get revenge or punish the perpetrator but come back to a sense of powerlessness. It is said that resentment is the “poison pill I take hoping you will die.”

There may be an inherent instinct to forgive people that we perceive have injured or harmed us to resolve the emotional distress and pain that result from the resentment process. This may also explain human’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. Staying angry at someone that has “hurt us” by breaking the social contract, actually injured us or let us down as a role model is just plan painful when you can’t do anything about it. You could obsess about it forever and the only way to free yourself of the pain is through forgiveness.

Eva Mozes Kor famously forgave the Nazis who killed her family and in particular Josef Mengele and his staff. They experimented on her and her twin, Miriam and 14,000 twin pairs killing many of them. Her lifelong resentment would have tortured her for the rest of her life until she discovered forgiveness as the only pathway to peace.

Good news for those who truly seek redemption through honest amends is that we will probably forgive them. Bad news for us is that we will probably too often give manipulative narcissists who just want to regain their position to take advantage of us the “benefit of the doubt” and forgive them, too.

Michael DeMeo, M.D. is a Psychiatrist practicing in New York City. He believes understanding human suffering and mental health issues is best accomplished by combining Biological, Psychological, Social and Spiritual perspectives. As a recovery therapist for people with addiction illnesses, he is particularly interested in the process of personal redemption.

Part 2: Redemption vs. Exploiting Forgiveness – Are we in social de-evolution?

by Michael DeMeo, M.D.

We human beings seem to have a nearly infinite ability to forgive, perhaps because we have a survival instinct that seeks spiritual connectedness and community.  This allows us to keep our community intact to achieve what we absolutely need spiritually. It also makes us vulnerable to being manipulated by self-centered, exploitative people when they pretend to make amends.  Their purpose is to resume the advantages that they had by the connection to society (fame, prestige, money, power) without amending their violations of the social contract.  Often the cause is that these manipulative people have never learned or embraced the moral and ethical rules of their society. They have an exaggerated sense of their own worth, lack empathy, have a sense of entitlement, require excessive admiration and are interpersonally exploitative.  The really intelligent and talented people with these personality characteristics have almost always become the leaders of societies because they do not follow the rules that the rest of us adhere to. They do not feel guilty when they transgress the social contract. This gives them a distinct competitive advantage. Today you may find them as leaders of government, industry, entertainment, and on the board of your co-op apartment or homeowners association. The least intelligent of them may be dead, in prison or perhaps even following you down the street late at night.

The interesting question to address is whether the famous transgressors or sinners that we love to see fall from grace (because of the unbelievable advantages our society allows them) are seeking personal redemption, or mere forgiveness to resume their exploitative relationship with society that they actually believe they deserve.

We mere mortals who accept and abide by humanity’s evolved social contract will always be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by such people. The solution is not to become cynical and therefore become more like them, which makes for a rather disturbing trend in our current society. Are we de-evolving?

Next: More on the Instinct to Forgive 

Michael DeMeo, M.D. is a Psychiatrist practicing in New York City.  He believes understanding human suffering and mental health issues is best accomplished by combining Biological, Psychological, Social and Spiritual perspectives.  As a recovery therapist for people with addiction illnesses, he is particularly interested in the process of personal redemption.



Searching for personal redemption: sincerity or exploitation?

By Michael DeMeo, M.D.

Evolution by natural selection does much to explain how simple chemical attractions and early life forms progressed to the wonder of human beings and our ability to perceive our own existence.  For most animals, the only instinct is to survive.  We Homo sapiens seem to have developed not only the prime directive of survival but also an instinct to achieve the absence of distressing emotions (such as fear, guilt and shame – the meaning of serenity) and the pursuit of self-determination (freedom), reasonable happiness, personal meaning and a sense of purpose.

 Social evolution by natural selection also does much to explain our need for spirituality.  I am not talking about religion, which codifies this human need.  To survive, evolving humans enjoyed a distinct advantage by forming larger and more interdependent groups.  To achieve serenity, reasonable happiness and personal meaning within one’s existence, it is absolutely necessary to be part of a community of people who cooperate to achieve these same goals.  Spirituality is that socially evolved human need to be connected to something greater than oneself: a community of people one can turn to for help and support to achieve health, serenity, happiness and personal meaning.  We are participating members and enjoy giving back when asked.  A second part of spirituality is to abide by the social contract of evolved rules (moral and ethical values) that are necessary to remain connected to others spirituality.

 When a person breaks the social contract and violates these rules, they become disconnected from the community and they can no longer remain optimally healthy, free of painful and distressing emotions, and reasonably happy with personal meaning and purpose in their lives.  Religions call these transgressions sins, and assure people that they will also be denied a blissful eternity or worse.

 Personal redemption requires the transgressor or sinner to honestly and authentically understand and accept that they have violated the community’s shared moral and ethical values. They must accept that they have caused pain and suffering in others and make a commitment to amend their thinking, emotions and behavior so as not to violate those shared social values and rules in the future.  This process of making amends is not an apology; it is an admission that they have violated these rules and hurt others, and a commitment to amend their lives so they can regain the spiritual connectedness of the community.  This confers great advantage to the person who has lost that need for spiritual connectedness and interdependence.  Of course, we expect an apology, but we are looking for actual change and the resumption of an honest, interdependent connection.  We often expect change but do not always get it.

Next: The differences between seeking Personal Redemption and Exploiting Forgiveness 

Michael DeMeo, M.D. is a Psychiatrist practicing in New York City.  He believes that understanding human suffering and mental health issues is best accomplished by combining Biological, Psychological, Social and Spiritual perspectives.  As a recovery therapist for people with addiction illnesses, he is particularly interested in the process of personal redemption.



Meditations on Virtual Sin

 By Anne F. Glauber and Steve Klausner

The very moral—some would say puritanical—Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter raised a philosophical conundrum in the pages of Playboy Magazine when he famously told the interviewer, “Christ said… anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Fast forward to May 2011 when, according to The New York Times, “a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on (Congressman Anthony) Weiner’s official Twitter account…accidentally Tweeted to all 45,000 of his followers.” In perhaps the understatement of the year, Weiner later told The Times, “I knew it was bad.”

His punishment was both digital and biblical. Weiner was shunned, mocked on TV, in newspapers and late-night talk show monologues, and ultimately forced to resign from the U.S. House of Representatives. His career in tatters, he had no choice but to embark on a self-imposed exile to save his marriage and rebuild some semblance of a reputation.

Recently, Weiner has begun an effort to rehabilitate his public persona and return to public life. Quite candidly, he admitted that there may be even more embarrassing digital photos in existence. “If reporters want to go try to find more, I can’t say that they’re not going to be able to find another picture.”

The media response was immediate and virulent. The intensity of the response has encouraged us to pose our own question: Have bad intentions become the moral equivalent of bad behavior? When all is said and done, did Weiner, like Jimmy Carter before him, merely lust after another woman in his heart? Or did he commit the sin of adultery? Is an errant Tweet the same as an adulterous affair?

And yet, in a world where we all live in glass houses, where every mobile phone comes equipped with a video camera, ready to capture a public figure in a private peccadillo, where social media afford anyone who can turn out 140 characters a global platform to moralize or demonize, just what constitutes actual sin? And when private misbehavior is played out on the public stage, just where does redemption take place: in the heart and mind of the offender, or amid the screaming headlines of the tabloid newspapers next to the supermarket checkout?

In colonial America, those who flouted the criminal and moral laws of the days often found themselves put on display in the public square, locked in wooden restraints, with a sign hung around their necks attesting to their heinous misdeeds and base moral character. The good citizens of the town were then encouraged to mock them, to fling mud, garbage, or worse at those poor souls. Reflecting on that sad chapter of American history, we ask the final question: given the state of digital media, how much has our culture really changed?

In response, Dr. Michael DeMeo made these comments:

President Carter repeats what many biblical scholars opine is a misinterpretation of Matthew 5:27-28. Although used by many religious groups to reign in horny adolescent boys and shame them about having human emotions and instincts, this passage is not a condemnation of lust, sexual desire or men having emotions and acknowledging them. The emphasis should be on the “will,” or the question more focused on “What is the proper response to sexual desire?” There are proper outlets for sexual desire within the confines of shared moral and ethical behavior that is the basis for our social contract with others – partners/spouses, family, friends, and constituents if we are an elected public official, etc.

Weiner’s sin or violation of the moral/ethical contract with others was to photograph himself and send the photo to other women. That was illicit behavior and I do not think that I am being unfair to conclude that his “will” had turned towards other illicit behaviors by sending it.

The requirement set forth by Jesus and the social contract is to decide to not do “wrong behaviors” as a result of our emotions and instincts. That is, to surrender our “will” to the social contract of “right behaviors.” This requirement is neither impossible nor unreasonable. Jesus does not require that we lose our drives or emotions or even our “bad” thoughts. He does not shame us or suggest we should have any guilt for having them. As it has been explained to me Jesus “forbids fixing one’s desire upon a woman (or man) that is not rightfully one’s own.” Weiner chose to be married and to make a career out of representing constituents in Congress, so he should have kept his private parts to himself and an appropriate few.

Lust is not a sin or violation of trust in relationships with spouses, family, friends and constituents. It is the covetous look and acts to have our “will” that is forbidden, not lust or desire itself. Of course, Jesus does not require that we are perfect. In fact, he acknowledges that as human beings, we have to be imperfect. He offers redemption as the solution to the fact that we have to sin. He promises God will forgive us if we admit we are sinners and try to not sin to the best of our ability. We humans offer others forgiveness.

I agree that Weiner should not be condemned for having an adulterous affair because we have no evidence he did. He should not be pilloried in the media or demonized. However he did break the shared moral/ethical contract he had presumably with family, and certainly had with his constituents. We are right to not trust him to act responsibly to represent our interests as constituents when he acts so impulsively and irrationally. I do not judge him for his emotions and thoughts; I do judge him for his behavior.

I hope he honestly seeks redemption and human forgiveness. That is, to honestly acknowledge what he has done “wrong,” that it has hurt others, and that he is committed to not violate the shared social contract and try “to the best of his abilities” to not do “wrong things” in the future. If he surrenders his “will” to the reasonable and achievable moral/ethical rules of the social contract he will be redeemed.

4 Stages of Redemption in Mark Sanford’s victory

Anne  F. Glauber and Steve Klausner

1)      Openness .   Mark Sanford was willing and available to talk about his transgressions.  He was honest about the pain it caused.  As our experts have told us, any pathway to redemption begins with self scrutiny and then an ability to articulate it to others.  Not easy to do.

2)      Religion.  He cloaked his language within the fabric of religious forgiveness setting up a protective barriers against attacks.  He sounded like everyone and anyone, full of imperfections and sin.  “ Some guy came up to me the other day, and he said, “ you look a lot like Lazurus ”,  Sanford said in his victory speech.  He also noted, “ I am an imperfect man saved by God’s grace and he talked about  “a God of second chances. ”

3)      Second chances.  He connected to American’s belief in second chances.   As noted in the New York Times, article describing Sanford’s victory, one  supporter said, “  “everyone deserves a second chance.” That about sums up .

4)      One Scapegoat.  Sanford was able to redirect a lot of public anger and frustration towards government spending. His mock debate with a card board Nancy Pelosi provided the perfect foil.

In writing our book on redemption, we have been identifying  a number of stages of resilience and renewal that are common to many indivuals who are able to work their way back.  Mark Sanford ‘s campaign incorporated several of these steps  as well.  What remains to be seen  is whether this process has been internal as well.


No. 1 in a series

By Anne F. Glauber and Steve Klausner

Seeing the  green shoots emerge from the  dark soil in the backyard, we cannot help but think that renewal is both a miracle and yet the most natural element of life. What was previously only a dark mass of winter rubbish, twigs, fallen branches and rotted leaves is now fertile ground for the birth of spring.  Seeing those tender leaves that will soon grow into bold peonies around the yard, we realize that there is an undying truth within the hardiness that prevails spring after spring.  Rebirth and resilience, renewal and redemption, are not extraordinary abilities but rather the natural flow of life.

We have been looking at public individuals who exemplify that flow, who take renewal to   a higher level and emerge from a cycle of personal despair, stronger, fuller, more successful in understanding the truth about themselves.  Our premise is that some people do it better than others. Some individuals cave in to themselves after mistakes and major setbacks, while others emerge better, larger, healthier. What is the difference? In a series of interviews with experts, ethicists, psychologists, attorneys, religious leaders, and the individuals themselves, we are seeking to understand the difference and offer insight into this process.

Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner are both interesting examples. In the Republican primary in South Carolina, Sanford, directly and openly confronted his extramarital affair with full repeated apologies and candid acknowledgement of his imperfections. His forthright attitude about repentance and redemption had much to do with his winning the  primary.  Unfortunately, for Sanford, however, despite the full head-on admission of his mistakes, he kept on making them.   A complaint from his ex-wife for trespassing has now alienated him from the Republican National Committee .  His special election is today and the polls show him running behind.

Again, his actions demonstrate that any comeback must be based on the foundation of honesty and openness, not back door getaways from the ex-wife ‘s home .

In Anthony Weiner’s case, it will be interesting to see what emerges this spring and whether he enters the primary for New York City’s mayor.  His reintroduction into the political fray was a policy book, “Keys to the City” not a public redressing of his mistake. But in a series of recent interviews,  Weiner has begun speaking more directly about his Twitter downfall, taking full responsibility and expressing huge disappointment in his actions. This openness and transparency are essential for a political comeback. His statement that  there may be more pictures to emerge is not a taunt to journalists to find them, but rather a difficult and honest admission.

Our research shows it can help.  Total honesty, towards yourself and others , full admission about your mistakes, complete  accountability —these are the critical first steps towards a path of redemption. Over and over again, we have seen that the process begins with sheer unadulterated honesty.

And nature gives us the clues that we are wired to respond sympathetically. Those who emerge from the blackness of the past more vulnerable, unfolding and  open, aspiring to the opportunities of new growth, are more likely to be forgiven.