Maybe it’s his name: Lance Armstrong.
It’s so perfect, like some romance novel lover or a comic book super hero. Maybe that’s where it all began for young Lance. He thought he was invincible.
He looked anything but during his prime-time confession to media’s Mother Superior, Oprah Winfrey. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) wasn’t buying it; a week later USADA CEO Travis Tygart told 60 Minutes that Lance didn’t really come clean with Oprah.
Veracity aside, Armstrong’s very public – and choreographed - mea culpa affords an opportunity to think about the act and genre of confession.
What makes for a “good” one? And not by the standards of People or True Confessions magazines, but in the view of the people who wrote the book on the subject: the Roman Catholic Church. (One could, of course, argue that the organization that wrote the rules on confession hasn’t done all that well in following them, but that’s another matter.)
The Jesuit priest and author James Martin offered some interesting thoughts on the business of true and worthy confessions in the Jesuit periodical America. According to Martin, a good confession needs three things:
First, you must make a clean breast of the bad business. A full confession. Hints, allusions, and partial disclosures don’t do it. It’s got to be the whole sorry story, the whole nine yards, “the whole truth.” Bill Clinton’s parsing of “is” (as in, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”) stands as an illustration of how not to confess.
Second, you have to really mean it. You have to be truly contrite, remorseful, sorry. No hedging or non-apology apologies. “If I have offended anyone, I apologize” is a line quite a few fallen angels have fallen back on, among them Bill O’Reilly and Kelly Clarkson. Just “I am sorry.” Period.
Third, the confession has to entail a true and real intent to make amends. You don’t air out Saturday night’s tawdry behavior just to do it all again next weekend. You don’t acknowledge that you screwed the competition, then go back to your dirty tricks for the next race. You have to change your ways. Like Chuck Colson, former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, who served time in federal prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. The man who declared “I’d drive over my own grandmother for the President” went on to found and run a nonprofit prison ministry.
What the three must-haves for a good confession add up to is this: you have to surrender all attempts to justify yourself. Instead, you must throw yourself completely on the mercy of the court, or God, or your family or the professional association that runs your sport or business – or, for Lance, all of the above. You don’t make excuses: “You made me do this,” or “everyone was doing it,” or “I only did it a little bit.” You say, “I did it. Here’s the whole sorry story. My heart is broken. I won’t do it again.”
This is pretty hard for us humans to do, since we are artists of self-justification. And according to James Martin, the sincere and heartfelt confession doesn’t end there. There’s follow-up and follow-through. The technical and theological term is “penance.” You do actual, concrete, visible stuff to, insofar as is possible, make it right with the people you’ve injured.
If you’re Lance Armstrong, the penance list is long. It might include apologizing to people you’ve threatened or defamed, which he apparently has done quite a lot of via Twitter. (Does that count?)
Since he can’t possibly apologize in person to everyone he’s let down, Lance’s penance might also mean performing some unglamorous acts of service, like cleaning the local elementary school at night for the next decade or packing sacks of food for the hungry once a week for the rest of his life. Something like that.
One thing we know for sure about Lance Armstrong is that he’s a high-achiever. He strives to be the best. Being the best at confession and amendment involves turning his usual modus operandi completely upside down. Lance can claim nearly super-human (and, we now know, drug-aided) achievement. He has cycled the longest, the hardest and fastest. And he did it himself. Sort of.
Excellence in confession and forgiveness, however, isn’t about that kind of achievement, the customary American type. It isn’t about something you do or accomplish or achieve at all. It isn’t about “living strong.” Quite the opposite. It’s about something you can’t do for yourself. It’s about something that is done for you. The religious term is “grace.” It means gift. It’s not something you can get. It’s only something that can be given to you. Like forgiveness. But you have to earn it.
“When it comes to putting broken lives back together,” wrote author Frederick Buechner in his book, The Sacred Journey, “when it comes in religious terms to the saving of souls — the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best.
“The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed also secures your life against being opened up and transformed . . . You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”
Lance may have bumped up against the limits of what he, or any of us, can achieve on our own by being stronger than the next guy. To succeed in his new role as penitent, Lance Armstrong may have to learn to depend on a power, and a mercy, not of his own creation.