I wrote this post nearly a year ago and never posted it. I started out to say "I don't know why" at the end of that sentence, but I don't think that would be entirely accurate. I think that I never posted it because it was uncomfortable, because it was too personal, because it's something none of us like to think too much about as it applies to our own lives. It's fine in the theoretical, as we talk about raising children or reform in our criminal justice systems--two things that I, as a parent, former criminal defense lawyer, and legal writer think about a lot--but not so much when it comes closer to home. I ran across it again today and decided that I thought what I'd written was true, and important, even if it wasn't entirely comfortable...so here it is.
I had to be punished yesterday. In one sense, I think that self-imposed punishment is the least valuable. It requires discipline, certainly, and a deep level of acceptance, but it is still in some sense chosen, still within our control. Receiving punishment from some just authority—whether we want it or not, whether we agree with it or not—is beautifully humbling. Or it can be, if it is well conceived and well received.
Unfortunately, both of those conditions seem to be sadly lacking in society today. In our criminal justice system, punishment is imposed seemingly at random; some sentences seem outrageous in their lenience and others in their severity. Most sentences have nothing directly to do with the crime in question. It doesn’t seem to be intended to inspire reform, and where it is the inspiration seems to be expected to come from fear of future punishment, from having “learned your lesson” about what happens if you behave like that. True reform, as we well know, requires a change of heart, not simply an aversion to punishment.
And, in fact, the aversion to punishment itself can undermine its effectiveness. When punishment is accepted—and I mean accepted internally, not simply conceded to—it can open the door to wonderful growth in obedience and humility. Unfortunately, the flipside—and the much more common scenario today—is that resistance to punishment (though it might not be escaped) builds a fortress of pride and an illusion of being “in control of our own lives.” The “they can’t do that to me” attitude has become so instinctive that it is nearly impossible for the value of punishment to penetrate the rejection of obedience and humility.
One summer morning several years ago, I was lying on my bed reading with my daughter when the power went out. I got up and checked the breaker box and looked out the window to see whether the neighbors had power, and then, with a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach, I went to check the front table where we kept the outgoing mail.
You see, I’d just returned from Las Vegas, and before I’d left I’d written out the utility check and put it in an envelope on the table where we put the outgoing mail…but I hadn’t actually mentioned to my husband that it was there and needed to be mailed.
At one time in my life I would have been angry: angry with my husband for not sending out any mail during the whole time I was gone, and angry with the utility company, because the bill couldn’t be more than ten days late and this seemed a bit hasty. I was just back from this long trip, and I was tired. We only had one car, and my husband had taken it to work. That meant a trek uptown—about a mile and a half—on foot, and it was in the nineties.
But I made a conscious decision that morning. I didn’t get angry. I took responsibility for not having either mailed the bill myself or explicitly pointed it out to my husband, and I recognized that three mile round-trip walk in muggy 90+ weather as the price I had to pay for that carelessness. My daughter, then five, wasn’t responsible, so when she began to complain of being hot and tired on the walk, I put her on my back and carried her. She shouldn’t have to suffer for my mistakes, after all, and if carrying her made the whole thing a little harder on me, so be it. Maybe next time I wouldn’t get so caught up in the excitement of my travel plans that I overlooked the obligations of everyday life.
By the time I arrived at the utility office, I was glad that we didn’t have a second car. It was clear to me that if this had been a minor inconvenience cleared up in five minutes in my air conditioned car, I wouldn’t really have taken time to give any thought to the way I’d just assumed someone else would take care of the details while I floated in the lazy river at the MGM Grand.
Although I was already in my thirties that day, it was the first time I’d thought to be grateful for consequences, to really open myself up to fully experiencing them instead of letting resentment interfere or trying to find ways to mitigate them.
There seems to be a “never give in” attitude in our society that makes it a point of pride to stand your ground even when you’re clearly wrong. “They can’t do that to me” extends so far that when it turns out that they can—when one finds himself in jail, for example, or without his driver’s license—“not letting it get to you” seems not only to be the norm, but viewed as somehow heroic.
I say, let it get to you. If you’re in jail for something you did, suffer. Don’t live inside your mind so that you can be “free” even behind bars—live behind bars and acknowledge your restrictions and the reasons for them every minute of every day. If you’ve lost your driver’s license, don’t drive. Accept the inconvenience of having to leave earlier and walk and take buses as part of the punishment you know you deserve, and give up places you don’t really need to go so that you don’t make someone else pay the price for your crime by requiring taxi service. And above all, be grateful. Realize you’ve been given an important opportunity to grow in virtues, to learn your place in the world and in God’s plan.
C.S. Lewis said once that every man we encounter will one day be a creature of such beauty that we should be tempted, if we saw it today, to worship it, or of such horror that we’ve never seen the like even in our nightmares. He pointed out that in every encounter, we help our fellow man along one path or the other. But there is perhaps no man-made circumstance in which that is so true as in punishment. It is never ignored, it is never without affect: it strengthens humility and obedience or it strengthens pride and rebellion.