Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lemons Into Lemonade

Senator Edward Kennedy has dominated the news lately. His death brings to an

end a generation of leaders who changed the shape of this country. The corporate media

has covered every aspect of his life from legislative accomplishments to his relationship

to the Kennedy saga. What struck me, however, were the episodes in his life where he faced

crushing adversity, mind-numbing disasters, and soul-sucking twists of fate. He conquered

all and moved forward to end up a classic American story of redemption and resurrection.

America is not a nation which admires failure. A team that comes in second is not

held up to praise. America loves winners and heroes. America loves to see a hero fall; and

we are quick to condemn fallen heroes to the dustbin of history. We like winners. We

teach our children to win. We preach success. Parents work hard to protect their children

from failure or tragedy. Children are not taught that life is full of pain and loss. Maybe

that is understandable, but as a culture we do not celebrate failure or admit the real skill

in life is healing after being broken and then moving forward. What was the first tragedy

or failure in your life? Were you ready for it? Did you possess the skills to deal with it?

What did you learn from it? How old were you? Did you pass the lesson on to others?

At age twelve, Ted Kennedy found out his oldest brother, Joe, had been killed

in World War II. When he was thirty, he had to call his father to tell him the President,

his son, had been assassinated. In 1964, Ted almost died in a plane crash; and was

hospitalized for more than six months and had severe back pain for the rest of his life.

His sister had suffered a botched lobotomy and was lost to him forever. in 1968, he had

to bury his brother Bobby. By the time he was 36 years old he had lost three brothers and

two sisters, his family was in tatters, and he was now the surrogate father to thirteen of

his brother's children and standard bearer of America's royal family. It is enough for

three people to cope with, but in Ted's case it gets worse.

In 1969, he drives a car off a bridge and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowns.

He left the scene. He didn't try to save her. The unspoken allegations are he was drunk

and having an affair with her. He became known as a womanizer and a drunk and his

physical health suffered. He tried to run for President, but was soundly rejected. He had

two children who had to fight cancer and had to bury three nephews. At it's darkest, his

personal faults were on display to the world; as he had to take the stand in the rape trial

of his nephew and tell how he had taken him for a night of partying in Miami.

Yet, he remarried and had his most productive and happiest years from 1991 on.

He built up a legislative record unmatched in modern history; and the personal record of

a loving husband, father, uncle, and grandfather who was there for any family member

who needed him. His sons eulogized him as a man who tried to find a way to turn every

tragedy into a positive outcome in some way. In that way his life was a true profile in

courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is being afraid or depressed or

anxious or despondent, but not being paralyzed or conquered by these feelings. In today's

world of "gotcha" journalism and 24-hour news cycles, would Ted Kennedy be allowed

to fail and live with tragedy and still prevail? Would anyone care to compare how he

responded to pressure and tragedy to someone like Sarah Palin?

It is said it is easy to live a charmed life. The real trick is to endure the suffering

life holds for each of us and not be conquered by it. To be knocked down and not only get

back up, but get back up better than you were before, is the key to living a full life.

We need to teach this to our children. They need to know failure and tragedy

and suffering are part of life. They need the tools so that they can be resilient and

courageous. They deserve the wisdom we can impart based on our own experience of

tragedy and failure and how we overcame and moved forward. They need to know that

trying and failing is so much better for them than not trying at all.

As Ted Kennedy's children spoke at his funeral, the theme they returned to again

and again was how he taught them never to give up. He constantly preached that they

could do anything. When life knocks you down, get up and move forward. I wonder how

many of us teach our children these lessons? Do we encourage them to try and maybe fail;

or do we reinforce a culture that worships success and pities and enjoys other's failures?

The triumph of Ted Kennedy isn't contained in his name or family riches. The

triumph of Ted Kennedy is in his love of family and the role model he became of a man

beaten and battered in life, yet emerging bruised but unbowed because he refused to let

anything conquer or dominate his spirit.

How well have you handled the vicissitudes life has handed you and how well

have you prepared your children for the bruises they will endure in their lives? When

all is said and done, will you have conquered life or will life have conquered you? What

do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to


  1. Great post! Sad, but true. God, it's good to see you back in action. I miss you here in the BayArea.