By Charles Moncrief
It ain't over 'til it's over.
Yogi Berra (1925-)
When we look at an outline that approximates a shape, our minds tend to fill in any gaps and complete the shape. For instance, if we see what looks like a circle with a missing arc segment of, say, 30 degrees, we likely “see” a complete circle. This tendency to “close up” a shape by mentally filling in the gaps is known as “closure.”
Closure works at the car wash as well. I remember the workers waving their towels to let me know they’ve completed drying and cleaning my car, only to come out and discover dirt all over the wheels. To them, closure apparently came when they had spent 90 seconds wiping down my vehicle.
Closure in a tax audit is when the taxing agent says “I really can’t find anything wrong, but I need to show my manager something for my time. Would you just sign this consent for a hundred dollars additional tax and we’ll call it even?” and the speed with which the consent form is signed just to get out of that office (from a lecture by tax expert Dan Pilla).
Closure in a traffic stop is when the officer quits badgering the driver who did nothing wrong and walks away saying “Drive carefully.” (This was a personal experience when an officer stopped me for driving on the left side of a street, and accused me of arguing when I said it had been one way for several weeks. OK, OK, I’m not over it, but I hold onto it because it makes for a good story after more than 30 years.)
Closure in a trauma is when the stitches are removed, the assailant is in prison, or the victim escapes from an attacker.
One definition of closure is “the often comforting sense of finality, such as with victims needing closure, or a satisfying ending that provides such a sense.” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary)
So in our modern society the accepted psychological model of mental health is to put our injuries behind us and get on with our lives. Far be it from me to encroach on psychology’s sacred ground by offering a superior definition of the word. Instead, permit me to offer a better way: to reach beyond mere closure.
Consider “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole (1860-1934).
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."
I think this poem is the author’s way of saying “Yogi, it ain’t over even when it’s over!”
How does this poem apply to closure, abuse, assault, or injustice? I want to give just one example from a recent article (Born to Run by Anny Jacoby)
A woman on a jogging path is attacked by someone who jumps out from behind a bush. She struggles and frees herself. She gets treatment at the local hospital, then goes home, dresses her wounds, maybe cries tears of relief, and perhaps collapses in exhaustion. That’s closure.
But then she gathers her thoughts. She goes to the police with the assailant’s DNA under her fingernails and a vivid description of him. Now, if the assailant doesn’t skip town and the police and courts do their job, one less danger is present in this jogging park.
Look forward. This woman’s action helps to prevent the next person from being assaulted, raped, robbed, or possibly killed. She wasn’t content to cross over the chasm. She built a bridge for the next jogger.
Look backward. Suppose this woman was not the first jogger assaulted by this man. Her predecessor, if still alive, may have escaped with some of her life and possessions. But did the previous jogger, content with finding closure for herself, have some accountability for not reporting as much as she could to get this despicable person off the streets and out of the parks?
I know this is a complex situation. I won’t suggest in any way that a person should be condemned or even criticized for remaining silent. My only position is to applaud those who act to prevent recurrence, not to criticize those who don’t.
Who knows whether this man had ever attacked anyone else? And who knows why nobody before was able to get the man put away? But such questions can go on indefinitely and paralyze us. I’ll counter with the accepted reality that of all the parks in this country, the incidence of repeat violence is enough to make the case for bridge-building. At the same time, I’ll caution that in our analysis of cause-and-effect we never want to condemn the previous jogger, if any, for failing to prevent this assault.
I do hope that it will make at least some sense to hold accountable those who fail to reign in their actions. Every time we allow someone to get away with misbehavior, whether in domestic violence, criminal assault, or bad-faith representation in the halls of government, we make it easier for the assailants to hurt our children and grandchildren. Once a bad behavior is tolerated, regaining control becomes increasingly difficult.
Don’t your children and grandchildren deserve your vigilance, to hold accountable those who teach, govern, and live in community with them? We at least ought to consider the advantages of not making them struggle to cross the same old chasms we ourselves have already crossed.
Grace and Peace,
BTW, I chose “The Bridge Builder” for a reason. While it has a lot of masculine language in it, please note that Will Allen Dromgoole was a woman.