It’s always better to give others a chance to grow. Graphic by Maggie Baranick.
ELLIOTT ROBINSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | firstname.lastname@example.org
For this week’s article, the last one of the 2022-23 academic year, I wanted to tackle a particularly difficult topic. I’ve written about diverse and occasionally divisive issues ranging from transphobia to relationship advice to embracing your inner kinkster — but the common ground between all of these articles seems to be that while the world at large is filled with oppressive forces, such as men on dating apps or abstinence-only sex education, we as individuals are always capable of educating ourselves and fighting back.
But what happens when the problem isn’t the rest of the world — it’s ourselves?
College can be a challenging experience for almost everyone at one time or another. Learning how to live with complete strangers, building friend groups from scratch and navigating the demands of student life with very little guidance are all extremely daunting tasks to put on the shoulders of young adults who — only a few months before — needed to raise their hands for permission to go to the bathroom. So it’s only natural to make a few small mistakes along the way — and some bigger mistakes as well.
Let’s face it: no one likes to admit when they’ve messed up, and this is doubly true for situations involving people that we genuinely do love and care about. Yet most college campuses seem to be a graveyard of failed relationships and broken friendships, where no one manages to graduate without having made at least a couple of bitter enemies. That means plenty of people are indeed messing up — even if they are reluctant to come to terms with it.
For me, it was two close friends during my sophomore year. The situation was complicated and painful and terribly sad, and in the end, I hurt them both badly. But now my worst mistakes are the only part of the story that gets told over and over again — probably because it’s the easiest part to believe. We convince ourselves that people who do bad things must be bad people, and as a result, we should always treat them as such.
But this article is not about upholding the idea that people are incapable of change. In fact, I believe that — although there are always exceptions — most people involved in these situations are aware of their mistakes and want to improve. The only problem is that they are often not given the environment, opportunity or tools to do so successfully.
This is an article about recognizing those people — and giving them the second chance they deserve.
Emma Richards, a sophomore arts administration and sociology double major, is no stranger to needing a second chance.
“I had a situation at the end of last semester where I was being a lot more egotistical, self-centered and mean than I thought I was,” Richards said. “My best friend had to look me in the eye and tell me, ‘You are the problem. You try to blame all of this on everyone else, and you can’t anymore.’ And that was a very, very difficult thing to hear.”
For Richards, the realization that she had hurt her friends was absolutely devastating. As she described several difficult weeks of remorse, depression and reflection that followed, I was instantly — and painfully — reminded of my own, nearly identical experience.
“All I could do was just sit and think about the mistakes I had made and how I could fix them,” Richards said. “And it was a lot of feeling depressed and anxious and all these other negative emotions.”
It may seem counterintuitive to feel sympathy for someone who readily admits to hurting others. In fact, we’re often inclined to think that these people are simply “getting what they deserve” if they experience painful emotions such as guilt, shame or remorse after making a mistake. But what the world doesn’t seem to realize is how much strength it takes to face the reality that you have made a mistake — or how much work it takes to move forwards. For Richards, she spent the whole of winter break focused on improving herself and rebuilding friendships. For me, I spent several months in mental health treatment to confront the issues that had caused me to hurt my friends.
Making amends looks different for everyone, but regardless, it’s never an easy journey. Our culture tends to romanticize the process of self-help, but the truth is much less glamorous and often requires taking accountability for things that we might not even perceive to be our fault.
Gabby Donahue, a junior English and secondary education double major, shared how environmental factors have contributed to a lot of the problems she experiences in relationships with friends and partners.
“I don’t know if people are necessarily bad,” Donahue said. “We make bad choices, and we might have bad learned traits, things that we picked up from our parents or whoever might have been around. I know that for myself, I didn’t know what a healthy relationship was because my parents didn’t have a healthy relationship.”
We can’t control who our parents are, or what kind of relationships we might be exposed to as a child. We certainly can’t control mental health issues that are either biologically predisposed or developed as a result of our environment. But striving towards self-improvement means that we can’t allow these factors to control our behavior. It may not be fair — but neither is it fair to hurt others instead of acknowledging these issues and working to solve them.
But Donahue also acknowledged that without friends and loved ones who are willing to give second chances, she wonders how much self-improvement can actually take place — even if someone is truly motivated to change.
“I hate the idea of cancel culture, or just eliminating someone completely because they’ve made a mistake,” Donahue said. “If someone is aware of what they’re doing, and they’re doing it to cause you emotional or physical harm, that’s definitely not a person who should be in your life. But I think it’s important to give people grace if they’re willing to do the work to correct themselves. I do think those people deserve second chances.”
Still, while I want to emphasize how vital it is to give people the opportunity to change and improve, it’s also important to recognize the victims in these situations: the people who have been hurt, sometimes very seriously, by their friends and loved ones. Should we also hold them accountable for creating a supportive environment, in spite of the pain they’ve suffered?
By now, dear readers, I hope you are beginning to realize just how complicated these types of situations can be. Although, in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to draw distinct lines between the villains and the victims, the real world is never so simple — and there are always multiple sides to every story.
Senior Emma Gifford, a senior history-political science, and peace and conflict studies double major, spoke about how her own moral beliefs inform her solutions to difficult circumstances such as these.
“I believe that no one should be defined by the worst things they’ve done,” Gifford said. “But at the same time, it’s not your responsibility to teach everyone around you. I’ve always just tried to approach people with grace, and let them learn from their experiences.”
Gifford didn’t hesitate to acknowledge how challenging it can be to maintain this perspective. She also spoke about how sometimes, the best option is simply to put as much space as possible between yourself and the person who has hurt you — at least until you know for sure that they’ve changed for the better.
“I think that one thing I’ve learned is that setting boundaries is someone’s way of wanting to continue a relationship with you,” Gifford said. “And so it’s important not to take it overly personal in that sense, which I think is very difficult, especially for people our age to do.”
At the end of the day, the best solutions involve prioritizing the mental health of everyone involved. Sometimes that means ending a relationship for good; other times, people may only need to take a short break from each other. But no matter the scenario, the person who made the mistake should not continue to feel persecuted or shamed as a result of what they did, especially if they’ve already shown improvement. That kind of mentality helps no one.
For me, I was lucky enough to be given a second chance. After returning to Butler as a junior in the fall, I put plenty of space between myself and the people I’d hurt, seeking out new friends, opportunities and experiences. But every so often, I would be uncomfortably reminded of what had happened during the previous year. The story is still being told — without the ending that it deserves.
When I was in treatment, I attended group therapy sessions for a little over two months. It was an interesting group: recovering addicts and alcoholics, mothers and grandmothers, a retired military man and me. We came from wildly different backgrounds, with wildly different lived experiences, but something our therapist said constantly applied to everyone in the room.
“You are more than your biggest mistakes.”
I really want to encourage people to consider this perspective. Whether you’re still harboring guilt from an old mistake as I am, or feeling bitter towards others who’ve hurt you, a little bit of grace can go a long way. I think we tend to forget that college campuses are a particularly emotionally volatile environment; after all, most of us don’t even have a fully developed prefrontal cortex. The mistakes made here can feel all-consuming, but they don’t have to be. Not as long as we all try to go a little easier on ourselves and each other.