Halloween is around the corner so it got me thinking about skeletons. Let me explain. We all know the phrase “the skeleton in the closet” — the past indiscretion or mistake that is brought up in our current life that could cause us harm in some way.
Let me give you an example. When I was running for mayor of Newton this past summer I was always scared about a skeleton of my own.
I’m a videographer by profession and have a degree in film production. For a short time, I also taught film making as an adjunct in an arts program at a local high school. I had not taught film to teenagers before and this was a new experience for me. At one point in the course, in a unit on the history of music videos, I showed a survey of influential music videos to the students, the criteria of which was simple. Every video had to have won awards, been recognized as significant, shown on national TV, and in some way affected society and raised social questions. Each video was screened for a few minutes in class. We held short discussions on each one about its content and how it helped shape or reflect society. One of the 16 music videos shown was later deemed by the school to be inappropriate for high schoolers. Due to this lapse in judgment on my part, the school administration felt they had to let me go. I should have run the list first by my department head. I did not fight this decision. I accepted it, apologized for my mistake, owned it, paid a steep price for it, and learned from it.
But this skeleton haunted me when I chose to become involved in local politics. I was scared that this mistake could be misconstrued, distorted, and used to discredit my character. I had never been fired from a job before. I imagined all kinds of scenarios of gossip posted as fact that I could never correct. In this era of ugly partisan politics, dominated by social media where everyone is a reporter and fact-checking is a thing of the past, this one mistake almost stopped me from getting involved in electoral politics in the first place, and even from writing this piece.
I realize that running for public office puts you in the public eye. But how can we encourage people to step forward to participate in the electoral process when the spotlight is so harsh that it can feel dangerous? When we ask for an unblemished record from our elected officials? Where we still look at skeletons as truly scary things and tell ghost stories that embellish or distort the facts and play on those fears?
Sometimes a person’s past is meaningful to voters because it could affect how a person carries out the duties of the office. But that isn’t always clear. Back in 1972, Thomas Eagleton was forced to quit the race as George McGovern’s VP candidate when it was revealed that he’d been hospitalized for depression. The 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick dogged Ted Kennedy throughout his career.
Maybe one approach is, instead of fearing our skeletons, we be allowed to embrace them. Mistakes and missteps create character. They teach us humility and empathy. They make us get up again and keep trying. If we can embrace mistakes made by ourselves and others, we drain away the power of gossip and rumor mongering in politics.
I hope that, as a society, we can be more open to the complexity of each other’s lives and let go of the idea of perfection for our candidates. I hope we can allow each other to move on. I know it’s Halloween, but maybe we can take off the masks for a bit and walk awhile with our ghosts.