The news of the day is hardly news any more. Cyclist and cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong finally "came clean" last night in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Over the course of ninety minutes (with another hour to come this evening), Armstrong admitted to what had been alleged for a long time -- many years, in fact: he doped over multiple years in many different forms. It has been big news, not only in the cycling community, but in the sports world as a whole, as well as in cancer-survivor circles. (Indeed, in poking around for a visual for this reflection, I searched under "Confession", "I did it" and "Coming Clean", and all of those searches produces photos of Lance!)
Opinion, however, as to the sincerity of the confession, its motivations, as well as ultimate effects, is mixed. This morning, driving to work, I heard a cancer survivor say something to the effect that, despite the doping, what Lance had done for survivors was incredibly significant. On the other hand, an editorial by Melinda Hennenberg in the Denver Postasserted that he had let survivors down, that he had betrayed them, that he had "played them for suckers". Cyclists have been debating, of course, whether the doping scandals over the last several years have hurt the sport . . . . and, then, if Lance's confession will have an adverse effect.
Earlier this week I tweeted that I was conflicted on this matter, and asked the question, "Should we forgive Lance?" I know that some folks will. Other's won't. Some in the cycling industry heard Lance's interview, and thought it was incredibly sincere and heart-felt. Others were more cynical and passed it off as good acting, forced contrition in order to get back into competition.
I'm not going to take a position one way or another. I do not have the ability to read minds or intentions, especially when mediated over the airwaves. Indeed, even in hearing confessions, as I have had cause to do as an Episcopal priest, I can only assume that the penitent is truly contrite. But Lance's public confession, as well as all of the others -- whether politicians or sports-figures -- gives me cause to recall a wonderful book I read many years ago: Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions by James Pennebaker.*
Pennebaker is psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin (Lance, take note!). He conducted numerous studies, from the classroom to the courtroom, on the effects of "coming clean", of confessing long-concealed secrets or sins. Whether the confessor was a suspected criminal or a student with a past, once the truth was out, there were marked physiological changes in the subject. Even if the revelation of the truth meant conviction of a crime, a criminal felt better, galvanic skin response changed, sleeping improved.
Pennebaker's point, suggested in the subtitle of his book, is that confession is not only good for the soul, but good for the body. In short, it's simply good. It marks a transition point. It allows for true amendment of life, since hiding the truth takes so much effort and energy that can now be turned in a different direction.
I've not followed the lives of other public penitents (whether dopers, or simply dopes) to see if their confession did lead to true change. Certainly many have written books chronicling their downfall, hoping to make changes in the sport (cyclist, and admitted doper, Tyler Hamilton's recent book about the Tour de France, The Secret Race, is one example!). Others have hoped that confession, and time out of the limelight, might bring new possibilities (South Carolina's former governor--and confessed adulterer, Mark Sanford, has announced that he will be seeking public office again). As with the case of assessing true contrition, I will not judge the motives of these folks.
I do believe, however, that any act of confession is fairly courageous act. Consequences that might otherwise be avoided are faced and accepted. Lance had been stripped of all his yellow jerseys and titles; he can wear yellow no more. On the other hand, it may be that, by coming clean -- to whatever extent, he has left behind some level of hubris and cowardice, and he may be yellow no more. If Pennebaker's right, he'll at least be a little healthier. And maybe his future will be a bit brighter.
If we were in a similar position, that's what we would hope for ourselves, right?
*The Guilford Press, 1997.