On James Carroll, Roger Federer, Bill Clinton and the moving finger of moral maturity

Roger Federer's words in defeat reminded me of James Carroll and Bill Clinton.

When I reflect on different experiences I have had, I find myself savoring moments and relationships.

While at Facing History and Ourselves, for example, I treasured the opportunity to drive Holocaust survivors like Rena Finder, one of the youngest Jews on Schindler’s List, to classrooms.  In the car, we shared about our families and our lives, forging a connection that endures until today.

Also while at Facing History, I got to hear James Carroll, a prolific author, prophetic voice and hero of my father, speak at the opening of the Choosing To Participate exhibit at the Boston Public Library in the fall of 1998.

“We are gathered under a cloud of witnesses,” Carroll said, referring to Gay Block and Malka Drucker’s collection of portraits and text by Holocaust rescuers that hung in a room above where he was speaking.   He cited Fritz Heine, a German who, Carroll said, “betrayed his country after it betrayed him.”

Later in his address, Carroll asserted that the definition of moral maturity is recognizing the relationship between choice and consequence-an idea he developed and put in writing in Constantine’s Sword, his magisterial examination of the history of antisemitism in the Catholic Church.

At the end of that book, in a chapter titled “Shema,” Carroll wrote:

“Moral maturity lies in the ability to see links between events-how choices lead to consequences, which lead to new choices, which set up even more fateful consequences.

Carroll’s words came to mind yesterday when I watched the end of Novak Djokovic’s stunning five-set victory over Roger Federer in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Just 10 minutes after fending off not one, but two, match points, Djokovic had his own opportunity for victory.

He took it.

After a 22-stroke point that ended with Federer spraying a forehand wide, Djokovic stood, eyes wide open, as if unable to believe what he had just accomplished.

In his post-match comments, Federer spoke with the disappointment of an aging champion who knew he had squandered one of his dwindling chances to pad his record total of 16 Grand Slam titles.

In an ESPN column by Greg Garber, Federer was quoted as saying:

Can’t turn back time, but, look, he obviously had to come up with a couple of good shots on match point, so I don’t feel I have that many regrets in that regard,” Federer said.  (Emphasis mine.)

Federer knows, and must live with, the knowledge that he had two chances to end the match and return to the finals for the seventh consecutive year, where a hungry and rested Rafa Nadal awaits.

Instead, he goes home.

Although Federer’s reflection on his defeat has fewer moral dimensions than the rescuers of whom Carroll spoke, the acknowledgment of the consequences of his choices is the same.

Of arguably far greater import was former President Bill Clinton’s conduct while in the White House-behavior which led to his impeachment and censure by the House of Representatives.

In the Rose Garden on December 11, 1998, before the impeachment vote by the House Judiciary Committee, a chastened Clinton said the following:

Like anyone who honestly faces the shame of wrongful conduct, I would give anything to go back and undo what I did. Bur one of the painful truths I have to live with is the reality that that is simply not possible. An old and dear friend of mine recently sent me the wisdom of a poet who wrote, “The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”

Clinton’s wish of being able to undo what he had done is poignant in his belated recognition of the betrayal of his office, his family and himself.  Although his actions did not demonstrate moral maturity, his words illustrate the accuracy of Carroll’s definition of moral maturity.

The words of all three men are a reminder to appreciate what Spencer Johnson calls the precious present, to take the choices in front of us seriously, and, as much as possible, to live true to ourselves and our beliefs, even as at times we inevitably fall short of that ideal.

2 responses to “On James Carroll, Roger Federer, Bill Clinton and the moving finger of moral maturity

  1. Jeff,
    It’s been some time since I read a column with a more disparate web of characters used in service of an overarching theme: moments and relationships connected to choices and consequences. Great ground game, sound serve, powerful forehand (keyboard).

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