Here’s a question from email, from a contributor who asked to remain anonymous (which is one reason, I suppose, it came in email):
If you fuck up, how long should you have to spend in the wilderness before you’re allowed to come back?
I mean, I think it depends, don’t you?
I suspect this question is asked in reference to the #MeToo movement, in which prominent men who have sexually coerced, assaulted and harassed women (and others) have been called into account and have, to varying degrees, been banished. But while the answer to this question in reference to those men feels relatively simple (i.e., “to hell with them”), in a larger and more general sense, the question of when (and if!) to no longer factor transgressions that people have made against you or others into your view of them is one I’ve wrestled with personally. Because, you know. Over the years, people have gotten themselves onto my personal shit list, and from time to time it’s worth revisiting that list to see whether those people should be paroled from it.
And as it happens, in thinking about this I’ve realized that over the years I’ve mostly unconsciously developed an informal rule for taking people off my personal shit list. You know how it takes seven years to take a bankruptcy off your credit report? For me, and generally speaking, it takes roughly ten years before I stop counting what I personally consider a major fuck up against you.
Why ten years? Because ten years is enough time not only to see if you’ve learned, but to see if you’ve incorporated that learning into your actual life. Like so: Have you recognized the error of your ways? Have you accepted responsibility for your actions? Have you (when allowed) made amends to the people you’ve wronged? Have you avoided minimizing or excusing your actions, and avoided trying to place the blame for them on others? Have you not repeated the same bad action again, or with others? If the answer to all of the above is “yes,” and for ten years running, then, fine. We probably all get to move on. If not, then not, and every time the answer to one of the questions above is “no,” well, then. The ten year clock resets.
(I also tend to credit this retroactively: We just met and I learn you fucked up a decade ago, realized your error, worked to fix it, and didn’t do the same fuck up again? Fine, the decade clock for you has already run down.)
I think this is a reasonably good informal general rule (for me) because, look: People can and do change, and people can and do work to rebuild their lives so they can be a better version of themselves. I feel it’s not unreasonable, after an appropriate amount of time and evidence of work done, to credit people with effort and assume they have gotten themselves right. Maybe that’s optimistic of me, but I think optimism isn’t a bad thing to practice with people.
That said, I’m not especially squishy about these things. I don’t, for example, equate absence of bad action with contrition. I think there are a lot of harassers out there who have stopped harassing not because they recognize the error of their actions, but simply because they just can’t get away with it anymore. And, yeah. You don’t get credit for that, bucko. This is a wagon it’s supremely easy to fall off of.
While I’m at this: not holding something against you is not the same as pretending a thing had not been been done; or more simply, forgiving is not forgetting. I don’t tend to forget. Oh, and: Not holding something against you anymore isn’t the same as liking you. Just because I no longer hold a previous bad action against you, it doesn’t make us friends. That’s an entirely separate process.
(Likewise, I can and have liked people who I think have fucked up, and can hold their fuck up against them, even as sometimes I have helped them recover from that fuck up. What can I say, people are complicated sometimes.)
(That said, it’s very rare I do that. Specifically I tend to drop people I have determined have willingly transgressed against me, because life is short and I don’t have time for assholes in my life anymore. So, you know. If you go out of your way to fuck with me, don’t think having being a friend will have much weight on that score. Friends don’t go out of their way to fuck with you.)
(Gosh, that just got dark, didn’t it.)
I should also note that for me this formulation generally works better for people you know in your own life than in the world of celebrity and notability, if for no other reason than it’s easier to see people doing the work to right themselves when they’re in your personal sphere of social perception. It can work with celebrities and notable people, I guess, if you’re super-invested in them, on the grounds that some people know more about celebrities and their lives than they know about their neighbors. I’m usually not that invested, so my practice with celebrities tends to be a bit more ruthless — out they go, generally speaking. There are always more celebrities and people making cool things to enjoy, and people to move into positions of power. I do have a small stack of celebrities on my “possibly enjoy again after they’re dead” list, but while they’re alive they won’t get another penny or another moment of my time. That seems reasonable to me.
At this point it’s fair to ask whether I would be comfortable with people holding the same standards against me, should they determine that I’ve fucked up or transgressed. The answer is: Well, I probably should, shouldn’t I? I’m not special, after all: I’ve fucked up, and transgressed against people, and otherwise people have made their own determinations about whether or not I’m worth their time. I’ve frequently apologized for my actions, made amends when I could and when allowed, and have continually made efforts to be a better person, with varying but hopefully positive results.
How much credit I get for that, if any, is up to any individual person. I have an informal rule for all this, but it’s not to say my informal rule will work for anyone else. Everyone gets to make their own rules about who to forgive, and when, and if, and who gets to be in their life. There are probably some people who will be happy never to see me again, for whatever reason, and that’s fine. I prefer not to inflict myself on people who want nothing to do with me.
(And as for the “celebrity” portion of that as an author — well, I mean, definitely don’t buy my stuff if you think I’m a terrible person.)
So this is generally how it works for me. I give credit for work done, but I also don’t grade easily, or on a curve. Whether this sort of formulation works for you will depend on a whole bunch of factors, mostly related to you. It’s okay if it doesn’t, or if you have some other formulation entirely. The thing about all of this is, it’s personal.
(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week! Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)