Daily Archives: November 10, 2011

Lessons Learned from Joe Paterno


“If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.”  -Rumi

As Parker Palmer notes in his book Let Your Life Speak, “if we are unfaithful to our true self, we will extract a price from others.” He goes on to say that people around us will suffer if we do not act from a genuine place, for example, we make promises we cannot keep; we build dreams that turn into nightmares. Or in some of the worst cases, like Joe Paterno’s, we may let children suffer deeply, because we are too scared to act courageously.

Palmer also recognizes that social systems in place often force people to act in ways that do not reflect their true selves. For example, if you are gay, in some places you are supposed to pretend that you are not, if you are of color you are supposed to deal with blatant racism. Or if you are the head of a legacy football team, you may not want to believe or draw attention to the fact that your defensive coordinator may sexually abuse children. In all cases, big or small, essentially you do not want to “stir the pot.”

Yet Palmer reminds us that we cannot accept these social systems and must live “divided no more.” Palmer talks about Rosa Parks and how when she decided to sit in the front of the bus it was not an original act of service for others but for  herself–“her whole being was tired of playing by racist rules, of denying her soul’s claim to self-hood.” Palmer suggests that Rosa sat down that day because she had reached “a point where it was essential to reach her true vocation” and “live out her full self in the world.”

How does one get to this point? When does one decide that they can no longer keep their personal beliefs apart from public and professional life? Where do people find courage to stand up for what is right when they may suffer great consequences?

Palmer finds that “the punishment imposed on us for claiming our true self can never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves by failing to make that claim.” In the case of Joe Paterno, he now shares with the public a dramatic case of what can happen when we deny what we know to be true in our hearts and how this denial can affect ourselves and others in a negative manner. He draws attention to places in our own lives where we are dishonest and shows us how ignoring our truth can affect both our own health but also the well-being of others; he reminds us of our humanity and provokes reflection on how our actions and in-actions affect ourselves and the world.

This post’s ultimate intention is to advocate for listening to what your true self has to say, taking risks and taking action when necessary. Unfortunately for Paterno in this case he didn’t, and he along with 15 young men paid the price. No one action should define a person’s legacy, but for Paterno, this one probably will. After a career most regarded as wildly successful and highly honorable, it is a shame that one cowardice has had such a sad and harmful ripple effect.