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Posted by on December 22, 2013

Reputation is a fickle thing. A young man of good character can successfully navigate the uncertain waters of life for years, only to have a single moment of bad judgment erase all the progress he has made. The speed of the descent from “fine young man” and pats on the back, to sidelong glances and whispers can be dizzying. And disgrace has unfortunately bad aim. In addition to staining the offender it often paints those around him with equal shame. Whole families can be labeled.

Family names can become infamous.

A certain William Burke lived in Ireland in the early 1800s. He and a friend discovered that there was good money to be made providing bodies to scientists and scholars for study. It was an age of scientific discovery and business was great, until the supply of unclaimed bodies at the local mortuaries started to run out. Ever the entrepreneurs, William and his friend decided to take advantage of the plentiful supply of bodies in the local graveyards. There were some pesky legal issues with this business strategy, but they were careful and their success continued. Unfortunately, the condition of much of their new-found inventory was determined to be unacceptable for their customers’ needs. Apparently the bodies needed to be more “recently occupied” in order to support the research. Not to be outdone, Burke and his friend reasoned that the ever-growing population of poor and homeless in nearby Edinburgh could provide an almost endless supply of their product. All they needed to do was properly “prep” the subjects for sale, which they began to do, quietly and efficiently. Until they got caught.

Take a look in any good-sized English dictionary and you’ll find the following verb:

burke [berk] vb (tr) 1. (Law) to murder in such a way as to leave no marks on the body, usually by suffocation 2. to get rid of, silence, or suppress [named after William Burke (1792-1829), Irish murderer and body snatcher, associate of William Hare;  executed in Edinburgh for a murder of this type]

Throughout the course of history, mankind has produced a seemingly endless line of notorious individuals. Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy…they each rightly earned their place in infamy.

But none of them has their own verb!

Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers”, once told his seminary students:

“When a preacher of righteousness has stood in the way of sinners, he should never again open his lips in the great congregation until his repentance is as notorious as his sin.”

Folks tend to have long memories when good men fail. Spurgeon knew that the collective memory of famous failure is rarely erased, but the significance of the failure can sometimes be diminished when compared to more famous repentance. Public repentance can be humiliating, but for those who have the strength to see it through, the results are usually worth it. There’s no guarantee that the damaged reputation will be restored, but accepting responsibility is the right thing to do, and the character built while trying is valuable.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the television news was filled with devastating images from New York and Washington. Karen watched at home and I watched in the common area at work. We spent a lot of time on the phone together. When Philip came home from school, he informed us that his 1st grade teacher had tuned-in to the coverage on the classroom television all day. Emotions were running high and we were more than a little upset that our 6-year old had been exposed to such frightening images without our being consulted.

Karen called the school. The principal said she would talk to the teacher and take appropriate action. Then she called us back. The teacher was very upset.

Philip had lied.

For whatever reason, Philip made the whole thing up. He admitted it. The television in the classroom hadn’t been turned on all day.

So Philip and I made an appointment to see the principal. That same afternoon he stood before the principal, looked her in the eye, and admitted that he had lied. He said that it would never happen again and that he was sorry. Not in a “Go on. Tell the principal you’re sorry” kind of way, but in a shoulders back, head up, “I really mean this” kind of way. The principal gave him a stern lecture about the importance of telling the truth, and Philip listened. Then we went to see his teacher. It was embarrassing and humbling, but he took care of it. Like a man.

Philip faced other consequences when he got home. He knew that his decision to lie meant he had chosen whatever consequences we imposed. He bravely accepted that. He also knew that his apology didn’t fix the fact that he had lied that day at school.

But among the staff at his school it got pretty famous.

originally published 9/22/11| next post Discipline

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