Starting Over: A Little Compassion Goes a Long Way

Love someone who doesn’t “deserve” it, and give a second chance – offering a “resurrection” to new life. Second chances don’t compute … but they do bring grace. Someone once said, “Never look down on a man unless you’re giving him a hand up.” For some reason that quote came back to me as I reflected on last Sunday’s story on CBS’ “60 Minutes” about a professor of law named Shon Hopwood at the prestigious Georgetown Law school. (See the lead photo [] and second photo below.) Not only is Hopwood a professor of law, but also he is a former felon who spent 11 years of his life in federal prison for robbing banks when he was in his twenties.

To make a long story short, and just in case you missed the broadcast, after spending time in the Navy, after flunking out of Midland University, and after laboring at hard jobs but mostly drinking and doing drugs, Hopwood and a buddy decided to grab some easy money and rob small town banks in the region. After robbing five of them, they finally got caught and he ended up in federal prison for the next eleven years.

Hopwood wound up working in the prison law library and, over the years, taught himself all about the complexities of the law. He finally was able to put this knowledge to good use – not for himself, unfortunately, but for a fellow prisoner who begged him to write a petition that would be submitted to the Supreme Court appealing an unfair drug conviction. The Supreme Court wound up taking the case, and here is where his story veers into the realm of compassion.

A prominent appellate lawyer and former solicitor general of the United States named Seth Waxman was asked to argue that particular case before the Supreme Court. He said he would only do it if he could work with Hopwood – impressed at the level of sophistication in his argument – as a still-imprisoned member of the team. To make a long story short, Waxman won the Supreme Court case in a unanimous decision and subsequently became Hopwood’s mentor during his final six years in prison.

When Hopwood got out of prison, he was able to finish his undergraduate degree and received a full scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to attend the University of Washington law school – a fine institution willing to take a chance on him despite his troubled background and history. After graduation he was admitted to the bar, and ended up getting a prestigious clerkship with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And so he finally landed where he is now, on the Georgetown faculty.

The last line of the Steve Kroft’s interview brought tears to my eyes and was the stimulus for this blog. In closing, Kroft asks Hopwood, “… somehow, all the things stacked against you, you were able to do it?” Hopwood answers, “Yeah. It was people that helped, that went out of their way to provide grace to me. That made the difference.”

Waxman didn’t go into all his motives for helping Hopwood. Clearly he was very impressed with Hopwood’s ability and sheer native intelligence in being able to argue the deep complexities of that first case and others while he was in prison. But I believe also that somewhere along the way, Waxman must have developed a deep compassion for this young man who made a very bad mistake when he was 21 years of age.

In The Book of Joy (co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams) that I spoke about in my last blog, the authors discuss in some detail what are referred to as The Eight Pillars of Joy. (See the third photo below.) One of these pillars is compassion (fourth photo). I don’t have space to go into all of it here, but compassion seems to be part of our human equipment – hard-wired in terms of evolutionary development into our brains. We all have a natural capacity, more or less, to care for our children; to feel with, to suffer with those others of our “tribe” who are in extremis or just plain needy. And current research has shown that most of us find compassion – acts of compassionate care – not only admirable (while not admiring vengeful folks), but inspirational to call forth acts of compassion in ourselves. That is, compassionate acts that we witness call forth more selfless, caring acts on our own part. And to act thus can bring great joy and satisfaction into our own lives. In that sense, compassion is personally elevating and life-enhancing.

My point here is this: I believe such compassionate tendencies motivate folks like Waxman to want to give others, like Hopwood, a second chance. And such compassionate acts are their own reward. In fact, the whole idea of a second chance is one that I think each of us can appreciate. We all want and need, somewhere along the way, someone to believe in us, forgive us our shortcomings, and give us that second chance – whether in a job or in a love relationship. And this line of thought brought back to me a story that I used years ago in a sermon (source unknown!). It goes like this:

Picture a child in a classroom, sitting in the back, not too good at her lessons. She struggles over a math test, and the clock is ticking away, and her teacher says, “Hurry up, time’s almost up …” And the clock ticks.

The bell rings, and tears start steaming down the girl’s face, and she hurries to erase the last wrong answer, and the page smears and starts to tear. The teacher comes over and says, “Oh my,” and slides a brand-new sheet of paper there and says, “Why don’t you just start over?”
There is something about that story and about its last line, that again – like Hopwood’s last line to Kroft – brings tears to my eyes. There is a profound lesson there for us all – about hoping for that second chance and giving that chance to those around us in need.

Let me close this little blog with an excerpt from a poem by Wendell Berry titled, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Near the end of that work, Berry writes, “So friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. … Practice resurrection.”

So love someone who doesn’t “deserve” it (do any of us?), and give a second chance – offering a “resurrection” to new life. Second chances don’t compute … but they do bring grace.