Cavities, Capital Punishment, and Personal Accountability
When I set about choosing a career at the ripe old age of about twenty, I weighed several factors, among them future schedule flexibility and income-earning potential. Basically, I wanted to do something as infrequently as possible while making a decent amount of money. So I settled on dentistry. Once that path was chosen, I had to decide whether I wanted to specialize. This was a no-brainer for me: I had always wanted to work with kids, and two years’ worth of a mostly adult-based patient pool had cemented that preference. Young mouths had less time to fill with bacteria and mistakes; kids were hardly picky about the anatomical accuracy of their fillings; and adults complained about nearly everything. Since those same adults were the ones who had gotten their teeth into the typically dire condition in which they presented, I grew weary of their complaints and the demands for perfection that accompanied them.
Personal responsibility wasn’t just a theme I valued while choosing a career—it’s a virtue I’ve embraced throughout life. For the first three decades of my life, I’ve operated under the black-and-white assumption that people’s choices are not just the driving force but the only force behind where they ultimately land, whether in the unemployment line or in the corner office; on an awards stage or in a prison cell. I assigned value to people on the basis of their socioeconomic status and other demographics because, in my opinion, hard work and good decisions led to avoidance of difficulty and promise of success.
It was easy to maintain these cut-and-dry opinions, these prejudices, when my hard work paid off in the form of diplomas and job offers. I never had to confront the roles my own geography and background played to my educational advantage and, in many ways, sealed my fate for me. In so doing, I elevated my own story while reducing others’, not allowing nuance to complicate or beautify either. I stopped doing that once two things happened: life ceased going the way I planned it, and I developed an understanding of grace. Not coincidentally, these events occurred in tandem.
I shouldn’t say I stopped being biased. After all, prejudices are typically ingrained and entrenched as a product of years of practice; it’s hard to shake them. But I know of no better panacea than the level playing field of grace. My own mistakes, need for forgiveness, and time in the unemployment line led to a conversion of the way I look at people, and in the way I view personal choices and their role in determining an individual’s life trajectory. In no way do I want to diminish the idea that we are all accountable for the decisions we make, but I no longer view those decisions as the singular determinant of outcome.
All of which led me to rethink my position on capital punishment.
I had always held my pro-life and pro-capital punishment stances without thought of their potentially contradictory natures. After all, criminals on death row are guilty of horrible misdeeds (It should be noted that I also once had much more faith in the accuracy of the criminal justice system. Then I served on a jury.) while unborn babies are completely innocent of any legal crime. All of which is true, excepting those inconvenient cases of wrongful prosecution (and semantically arguable depending upon when your definition of life or baby begins). But I was viewing the issue through the wrong lens. What it all came down to once I allowed grace to correct my vision was not guilt vs. innocence—after all, according to grace we’re all guilty—but who the rightful arbiter of final justice should be. And, my friends, it is not I.
The longer I live, the more I realize how my biases prevent me from being fair in everything from traffic to life-or death-decisions. Do I believe there are people who deserve to die? Absolutely. If you ask nicely, I’ll give you a list. But that’s not the point. I’m practicing cognitive dissonance when I believe human beings don’t have the right to end life before birth, but do have that right after birth. In both cases I am making one person the ultimate judge over another, and that role is simply above my pay grade. I do not have the right to take a life. I am no one’s ultimate judge. Shots at redemption and chances for forgiveness are held in the hands of another, who has lavished both upon me time after time—whether I deserved it or not.