Does Our Past Define Us?

A central question in criminology and criminal justice is whether a person’s past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.  Probation and parole investigations traditionally focused on that question as part of a judicial or parole board recommendation.  The general public tends to believe that persons convicted of crimes are very different from us and claim “once a crook, always a crook”!

Many convicted criminals do reoffend and violate probation and parole conditions.  When given opportunities to turn their lives around however, most offenders do not reoffend.  They are not significantly different from us.  Most of us engage in some irresponsible behavior during our youth, but our past does not always define who we are.

Events this past week in our nation’s capitol brought our attention to the question of incidents in the past and their relevance for the present.  In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford offered gripping, emotional, and heart-felt testimony that captivated millions of Americans.

Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford both spoke of past events in their lives.  She related a victimization experience that deeply affected her through high school, college, and up to the present.  He spoke of numerous incidents of drinking beer with friends at parties but denied drinking so much that he could not remember what he had done; and vehemently denied engaging in any sexually inappropriate or assaultive behavior.

Americans and the Senate Judiciary Committee are divided on who is telling the truth, largely along political party lines.  But an underlying question is whether an incident that might have occurred 35 years ago while the two were in high school should be a determining factor in approving a Supreme Court Justice.  Perhaps the FBI Investigation (being conducted as I write these words) will shed more light on the testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford.





“Does our past define us?”




The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is a “teaching-learning moment” that deserves our continued attention regardless of the outcome of the investigation and impending vote in the Senate.

The testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford illustrates that while our past does not define us, it does affect us.  Both of them moved on with their lives since the alleged incident in 1982, achieving educational goals at outstanding institutions.  Both attained prominent positions in their respective disciplines.  But their testimonies revealed stark differences in how well they “moved on.”  Dr. Ford told how the alleged assault affected her through college and even in a recent home renovation to add a second front door.

Judge Kavanaugh testified about the disastrous effects on him, his reputation and to his family— not due to the alleged incident but because of the false accusations leveled against him that supposedly occurred 35 years ago.  He acknowledged heavy drinking in his youth but emphasized his educational and judicial achievements that qualify him for his nomination.

Our past need not “define us” but our behavior in the past may well affect us and others years later.  Dr. Ford testified that shocking events are more indelibly imprinted in our memory than other events (confirmed by other psychologists).  This may explain the apparent inconsistencies in her memory for details of the alleged incident; and why Judge Kavanaugh may not remember the event (if it in fact occurred).

The testimonies we heard last week also reminds us that our past behavior may have effects on others in ways we are unaware and do not remember.  Gender differences are important to acknowledge.  The “#MeToo” movement has brought our attention to the immensity of the problem of sexual harassment.  More men are beginning to recognize the reality of “male power and privilege.”  More of us are beginning to acknowledge that it is not just a “women’s problem” but one that adversely affects our wives, our daughters, and all of us.  It affects all our lives, including the workplace, our governing institutions, and yes– our judicial system.

          “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

                –Mister Fred Rogers

Our past need not “define us”—but it does take strength and effort, support of friends and family, and personal resolve to restore ourselves and others who may have been affected by our past behavior.  Persons of faith believe that only through trust in God who cares for the welfare of all, can we find the strength and resolve to move on from hurtful events in our past.  We also believe it is important to acknowledge wrong-doing as expressed in the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  May Almighty God help us all to acknowledge our past as a necessary step in moving forward and not allowing it to define us today.


One thought on “Does Our Past Define Us?

  1. Pingback: Kids and Adults: Same, or Different? – Criminology-Theology Connection

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