When you see those movies or read those books in which one criminal "rats out" another and is summarily whisked into Witness Protection—ever think about where they go?
According to Jess Walter, author of "Citizen Vince" (as well as "Beautiful Ruins," "The Zero," and "The Financial Lives of Poets"), more than a few fellows with felonious connections are set up with new lives in Spokane, Washington, where Walter lives and writes. Turns out that Spokane (a few years ago, anyway) was a popular place for the feds to send folks who had to get away from the thugs they fingered, a place where they could quietly, without causing attention, start a new life.
Last year more than 40 million people from other countries were in America starting over. Legally or illegally, they voted with their feet for a chance to begin again. And they're just a fraction of the millions of the rest of us who have grown up taking second chances for granted.
The U.S. bankruptcy laws were partially designed to give folks another chance. Divorce laws seem constructed that way, too; with no-fault, being a way out of bad mistakes. Certain women’s health laws also acknowledge that mistakes are sometimes made—sometimes on a person; sometimes by a person. Most women and families believe they should get another chance to get it right. After a rocky start with prisons designed to punish, our country tried to rehabilitate mistake-makers, especially children, and give them a second chance.
It looks to me that many of the "second chance" opportunities in this country are consistently being revised, revoked, repealed, or ignored. I get upset when I see bankruptcy courts now giving corporations, cities, banks, and investors lots of second chances—not so much workers, whose only mistake was to show up every day for 20 or 30 years.
Are we the kind of country which demands that a person suffer forever for a mistake? In many countries, religions demand tighter ties to where you came from. Many on this planet have no choice but to re-live their parents' lives. America is different. The church-state divide allows for rejection of parents' religions. Many set out alone for new spiritual vistas, and raise their children in a completely different way from which they were brought up. Lots of our ancestors did that, too. Even the stodgy old Catholic church allows people to start over. Sins can be forgiven—all of them—all the time.
I know that "personal responsibility" is one of the mantras in this country, but when Alexis de Touqeville, an aristocratic Frenchman, compared our country to Europe in the 1830s, he thought the American notions of moving on, moving west, or just starting up a new life, were really what made this country "exceptional." Europeans were tied to family, religion, class—in a way that these "give-it-a-try" Americans were not.
Think about the G.I. Bill and how it gave millions a chance at education they couldn't afford before the Second World War.* Think about some of the bad things you did as a teenager or really rotten things your kids did—and got away with. Second chances.
When I look around at other people over sixty years old, I see them starting over in all kinds of ways.
Some are on their second or third marriages. Some lost their houses because of the housing bubble. Some lost their jobs, their careers. Some lost their savings. Some lost a child, or a spouse, and have to move on in spite of those holes in their hearts. Some had single or double or quadruple heart bypass operations. Or received a whole new heart or liver or lung. Some discovered they had cancer and decided to go through chemo and radiation, betting on the chance to live five-to-ten more years. Some are moving to completely new parts of the country, leaving old friends and family behind.
I'm now reading "Sycamore Row," by John Grisham. One of his characters, Seth Hubbard, started over when he was sixty. Two failed marriages left him broke and bitter. But he didn't skulk off to mourn. For him, the best revenge was to make more money than he had to give his wives in his divorce settlements. He started over. Again. And he made it.
It's important that we realize that America's safety nets, including Social Security and Medicare, make it possible for older Americans to "try something new" during this last part of our lives when our needs and wants are different from when we were young. It also makes it possible for our children, in their 40s and 50s, not to go bankrupt caring for us, as their parents had to care for their parents who had to care for their parents, etc.
The point is this: we all have had a lot more chances than most people in history. When we see certain laws or systems trying to give people (or generations) a second shot at life, a partial or a complete "re-do," maybe we should think about how many times we ourselves screwed up, or fate kicked us in the teeth, and how lucky we are to have been able to "move on."
Oh, you say—neither you, nor anyone in your family, ever made any mistakes? Good for you. I guess you get to throw stones.
*The GI Bill was signed into law in 1944. WWII is said to have begun in 1939 and end in 1945. So maybe you should say the G.I. Bill gave millions a chance at education after the Second World War.