Things come through my life often in noticeable clumps. I can’t think of any other word. And, for some reason, I find myself hearing a group of stories about ruined lives. I mean specifically calculated ruin. Someone in a position of authority or with power or with money — or all of that — decides to ruin you.
A couple of friends. A handful of patients. Sometimes the victims are completely innocent. Their only crime was to threaten in some way people who don’t wish to be threatened. Or they were somehow in the way of or opposing the agenda. Or they are crushed and humiliated by a jilted suitor. Other times they were trying to do a good deed. Or they were simply so brilliant and so successful, so admired in their life and work, that their bright light just couldn’t be tolerated. In some especially awful cases, lives get ruined so that another wickedness can be covered up.
Often people’s lives are ruined simply because they tell the truth. Or perhaps they know some truth that others fear will be told.
Other times victims might have made a mistake. Not a crime, mind you, but some error or lapse in judgment that provides an enemy with a foothold to vilify. Death by innuendo. You don’t have to plant a kilo of cocaine in someone’s office desk. There are many other, more subtle means. You can even ruin someone’s life while looking noble and victimized yourself.
I think of the character Tom Robinson from the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," only my favorite novel and favorite movie of all time. Tom Robinson is a black man accused of raping a white woman, when in fact the truth is only that Tom Robinson suffers from the very vulnerable combination of a good, good heart and utter naivete. The white woman asks for his help, and Tom obliges, time and time again. Then the woman comes on to him, attempts to kiss him, seduce him. The woman’s father savagely beats the daughter. And together, they charge Tom with rape.
It ruins Tom’s life. He can’t bear the humiliation. He commits a before-its-time version of "suicide by cop," running away from officers saying "halt" until they are forced to shoot him. Tom dies. He gives up on his ruined life.
I think of the character Laine Hanson in the 2000 film "The Contender." She’s been nominated to fill the vacancy of vice president of the United States. A film hits the Internet depicting her, years earlier in college, participating in a group sex act. She neither denies it nor confirms it. In fact, she suffers the humiliation by refusing to talk about it at all. In principle. Later, when the film is revealed as fraudulent, the president invites her to hold a press conference, exonerating herself. And she refuses that, too. In principle.
The simple fact is that it’s easy to get away with ruining someone’s life. Even years later, the people I talk to, long over the social, economic or personal damage, still chafe at the injustice. The helplessness they feel because they know that, in this lifetime, it is unlikely that justice will ever be done.
So, how do ruined people pick up and move on again toward a thriving, grateful life? I think the first order of business is surrender. We stop railing against the injustice. Somewhere inside of ourselves, we make an authentic peace with the fact that no one is immune to injustice. We decide to deeply believe that we waste our lives insisting every scale must be balanced before we are free.
Second, in some cases, we walk away from the fight. Yes, we give up. We acknowledge that our enemy has won and move on to other work, other opportunities to give life a chance.
And lastly, we decide that no one has the power to make life anything less than good. I guess you might call this decision a decision of faith, even if you aren’t religious.
Richard Foster, a Christian theologian and an author in the Quaker tradition, tells the story of a monk in prison for something he didn’t do. The monk looks out the window and sees a dog tearing up a rug on a clothesline. And God says to the monk, "See what that dog is doing to that rug? That is what is happening to your reputation. But, if you will trust me, I will take care of you, reputation and all."
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.