Sandra Bullock’s husband checked into rehab for sex addiction. So did Tiger Woods after exhibiting suitable remorse about his adultery. What should Elin Nordegren (Woods’ wife) and Bullock do? You discover that a trusted employee has been filing false expense claims. What do you do?
You find out that your star student has been lying about his homework. Do you report him to the school principal or engage in a teacher-student talk and try to reform him?
You are fairly certain that your housekeeper has stolen your favourite ruby bracelet. What do you do?
You discover that your spouse is having an affair. Do you divorce or reconcile?
The easiest route would be to punish: to fire the erring employee, to expel the student, to divorce your spouse. Harder still would be to give the person a second chance, and that is what this piece is about.
Several weeks ago, at SeaWorld amusement park in Orlando, Florida, a 12,300-pound orca killer whale named Tilikum dragged his 40-year-old trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the water by her ponytail, swung her around playfully and took her underwater where she died due to multiple organ injuries and drowning. In the days that followed, whale experts and Disney officials engaged in collective heart-searching about the fate of this sea mammal. Some experts suggested that Tilikum be shipped to the high seas, its natural habitat. If you had been placed in a swimming pool that is the size of a bathtub (in human terms) for 25 long years, wouldn’t you be a little psychotic and angry, they asked. Others insisted that Tilikum be put to sleep, especially since the orca had been implicated in two prior human deaths. Still others said that Disney ought to give the killer orca a second chance and that’s eventually what SeaWorld decided to do. While Brancheau was buried in a tearful farewell in her hometown, Chicago, the whale show at Disney’s SeaWorld went on. With Tilikum, the killer whale.
Oscar effect: Sandra Bullock and Jesse James.Peter Kramert / AP
In the case of my friend, Reena, whose maid stole her ruby bracelet, Reena confronted the maid and elicited a confession. Rather than fire her employee, Reena told the maid to bring the bracelet back…and keep her job. She played to what she perceived as the essential goodness of people. She said that she knew that the maid was a good person and an efficient employee. Perhaps sudden money troubles had caused this transgression. The only way to rectify the situation was to return the bracelet, she said. The maid did so and—Reena reports—not only turned over a new leaf but also made herself “fairly indispensable” to the household.
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My friend’s approach intrigued me because it is against the principles on which I operate my home. I give the woman who works for me lots of freedom and trust. She has access to all the rooms in my home and with little supervision. Unlike my mother’s generation, I don’t lock away jewellery. My mother thinks this is foolhardy— why are you enticing people to steal, she will ask. But the underlying assumption is that if my maid steals, she is out. I tell her this. The moment I lose my trust, you can no longer work for me, I’ve told her. No second chance. No forgiveness. And yet, studies have documented that forgiving not only reduces the bitterness and betrayal that you feel against the person who wronged you, but is also a good way—and sometimes the only way—to gain closure and peace.
Perhaps Priyanka Vadra intuited this when she went to visit the woman who killed her father. To give someone a second chance, forgiving them is a necessary first step, but not the only step. In Vadra’s case, she wasn’t in a position to give Nalini a second chance. In the case of an erring housekeeper or over-expensing executive, it is in the employer’s power to let him or her try again.
Whether you give someone a second chance depends on the person, the circumstances, and to some extent, the scale of their transgression. What about Nityananda Paramahamsa, the godman who was rudely brought to the realm of the mortals thanks to a videotape that exposed his libido? The man is only 32. Although I don’t believe in godmen, I know that large sections of the poor people in Kammanahalli, Bangalore, believed in him and gained peace through him. Does he deserve a second chance?
What about a cheating husband? Two of my friends in Delhi are going through this. One is a smart, attractive fashion designer, whose husband had an affair with his office colleague for years. Like the proverbial wife, she was the last to know. The other calls herself a “typical Punjabi”. She lives in a joint family with her in-laws and two children. Her husband is a philanderer, taking up with different women on business trips. In both cases, the wives—my friends—have decided to give their husbands a second chance, something which shocked those of us who knew these bright, beautiful, assertive women. Walk out, we would tell them. Get a job; get a separate life. They won’t. They are willing to forgive and forget. Preserve the marriage for the sake of the children. Whatever.
When your close friends make decisions that are the opposite of what you might expect, you tend to question your own. It is easy to speak from the hubris of certainty; to offer advice; to chart a life-plan. When your world becomes topsy-turvy, who knows what your choices might be? A mere two years ago, I was sure about what I would do in any situation. Now, I am not so sure.
Shoba Narayan has not tasted a $5,000 Petrus Pomerol but she will happily take a (second) chance on any of the Pauillac premier grand crus. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org