A Wrong Turn in the Road

by Robert Ringer

I believe in free will and in man’s capacity to rise above adversity. I believe in accountability. I believe in the basic virtues upon which Western civilization has been built.

But I also believe that people sometimes take a wrong turn in the road – perhaps inadvertently or maybe as a result of an ill-advised impulse – then discover that they can’t find their way back. There can be many causes for making that wrong turn – teenage pregnancy, the loss of a loved one, disappointment over not landing an anticipated promotion, lack of social acceptance, or failure in an area such as sports, academics, or family.

Whatever the cause may be, we know that some people give up on life and turn to alcohol and drugs, become bitter recluses, or even resort to suicide. Then there are others who, after experiencing everything from a poverty-stricken background to racism … to the loss of an entire family … to financial catastrophe, fight back and succeed against all odds.

What we don’t know is why one person is motivated to take a turn in the road that leads to a happy, fulfilling life, while another chooses a turn that leads to self-destruction and misery. Is it genetics over which we have no control? Is it inevitability dictated by a Universal Power Source (“God,” “Allah,” “Supreme Being,” etc.) or a random universe?

The truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know. Years ago at a seminar in Sydney, Australia, Jim Rohn, in talking about how easy it is to become irritated by individuals who are nasty to you, suggested that you have to learn to “meet people in the hurt.” Everyone who has children can relate to this, because kids experience so much pain growing up. What they have to go through as adolescents and teenagers borders on cruel and unusual punishment.

The good news is that most of them survive and go on to lead normal lives. The bad news is that millions of them never find their way back to the main road and end up on drugs, alcohol, or both. They end up in abusive marriages. They end up homeless. And, yes, many end up dead at an early age.

Whenever I cross paths with a street beggar, I find myself wondering what happened in this person’s life that brought him to such a wretched state? What was the wrong turn he took, why did he take it, and when? I began giving money to street beggars at a relatively young age. I especially made it a point to give to them when I was struggling in my own life, because I would think to myself (and still do), “There but for the grace of God go I.”

People have often chastised me for giving money to “human blight” who appear unwilling to try to help themselves. But I am motivated to do so by the lingering question: “What is it that happened in this person’s life that brought him to the point where he has lost the sinew to fight for his existence?”

It’s easy to say that a person should stand up and do whatever it takes to overcome his plight. But that begs the question, Why doesn’t he do it? Is it a genetic issue? Is it willed by a Higher Being for reasons we do not understand? If he’s “lazy,” why is he lazy? Is there not something mentally wrong (by “normal” standards) with both a schizophrenic and a person who cannot muster the energy to fight for his life? If a person’s brain does not work in such a way that he is determined to rise above his dismal circumstances, is he not just as “crazy” as a schizophrenic?

Let me make it clear that I’m not on a crusade to help the poor. On the contrary, I am a staunch believer that people who rail on endlessly about the injustice of the growing gap between the rich and poor almost always do more harm than good. As Nobel Prize novelist and poet Anatole France so rightly pointed out, “Those who have given themselves the most concern about the happiness of peoples have made their neighbors very miserable.”

Every time I see Michael Jackson on television, I wonder to myself, “What has made this man-child so miserable?” As late as the mid eighties, he was a handsome young man with talent unlike anything anyone had ever before witnessed. Yet, he made a conscious choice to destroy his good looks and turn himself into a freak. Why in the world did he choose to start dressing like a clown and talking like a little girl? What caused him to take that wrong turn?

When I look at Michael Jackson, I see nothing but pain behind the choreographed scene of bodyguards, umbrellas, victory signs to his fans, and jaw-dropping babble about cookies and milk. Whether Jackson is eventually successful in resurrecting his career in Europe and Asia, it won’t matter. He will still be miserable. You can bank on that. In fact, I would guess that his acquittal on child molestation charges only emboldened him to take his attention-getting weirdness to a new level.

I feel the same way whenever I see Liza Minnelli on television, making yet another slurring announcement that she is now clean of alcohol and drugs. Or that she has finally found the love of her life, and they are destined to live happily ever after. Of course, any casual Hollywood observer simply translates this to mean that her new marriage is going to last three-to-twelve months.

I vividly remember Liza’s mom, Judy Garland, in her last appearance on The Tonight Show. It didn’t take a doctor to figure out that Garland was either dead drunk, on hard drugs, or both. With all her fame and fortune, I recall feeling genuinely embarrassed for this multitalented woman. All her singing, dancing, and acting ability seemed to yield nothing but misery for her. With such a role model, it would have been a miracle if Liza Minnelli had grown up to be normal.

But when I think about meeting people in the hurt, Mike Tyson is the celebrity who most often comes to mind. Many people have a strong dislike for this hoodlum-turned-famous centimillionaire … turned felon … turned bankrupt … turned all-around broken man. But if you listen carefully to Tyson’s words, you can feel the pain radiating from him. As a youngster growing up in Brooklyn, he knew no other life but that of a street thug. His wrong turn came at a very young age.

What Tyson has in common with untold millions of street people, drug addicts, the depressed, and individuals who just can’t seem to win their battles against self-pity and misery is that he made a wrong turn in the road very early in life. But what’s interesting is that, unlike a George Foreman, subsequent fame and fortune couldn’t seem to turn him in the right direction.

Tyson also has something in common with the Michael Jacksons, Liza Minnellis, Elizabeth Taylors, Angelina Jolies, and other loose-screw celebrities whose lives have become too-good-to-pass-up monologue material for the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart. The nonmedical term for this problem is: too much money, too fast, too easy.

Richard Bach poetically summed it up in The Bridge Across Forever when he warned, “To be handed a lot of money is to be handed a glass sword, blade-first. Best handle it very carefully, sir, very slowly while you puzzle what it’s for.” The truth of his statement has been evident throughout history, which has repeatedly demonstrated that captains and kings can be as miserable as the most poverty-stricken among us.

A good lesson to draw from all this is that it’s a mistake to spend your life yearning only for money. It’s far better to seek the path leading to personal improvement and a meaningful, fulfilling life.

I have neither admiration nor respect for any of the people I’ve mentioned in this article, but I do feel their pain when I see them on television or read about them. I’m no Mother Teresa, so I do not have a desire to help them. In fact, if they even knew I existed, they would scoff at the idea that I have sympathy for them.

But when it comes to helping a guy sitting on the sidewalk and begging for a few coins, it’s different. And in the final installment of this article, I’ll explain why.

So, how is a guy sitting on a sidewalk and begging for a few coins different from famous celebrities who can’t seem to get a grip on life? The biggest difference, I believe, is that the beggar wants help. Not help in getting sober, cleaning himself up, landing a job, or bettering his life. Forget all that. It’s not going to happen – not with my help, not with your help, not with the help of professional do-gooders, and certainly not with government help.

Nevertheless, I feel a compulsion to meet that street person in the hurt, which is why I usually go out of my way to give him a dollar or so. I know that he’s going to spend it on cheap wine or drugs, but I don’t care. What I do care about is that the meager sum I hand him will give him some instant gratification, something that I fight against with a passion in my own life.

The difference is that the street person has no life. When someone is dying of cancer, you give him instant gratification in the form of morphine. It’s the same with a street person and his desire for drugs and alcohol.

I don’t give out of guilt. I give because I know that this person is going to live out the remainder of his relatively short lifespan enduring a kind of pain that is incomprehensible to you and me. I give because I know that but for the grace of God, there go I. Something human inside me senses this and makes me want to meet him in the hurt, if only for a moment.

I know that something, somewhere along the line, caused this pitiful soul to take a wrong turn in the road. And something genetic – or perhaps environmental – has kept him from rising up and fighting the good fight. Something has totally defeated him, something that will forever remain a mystery to the thousands of people who pass by him each day.

What I have said in this article is not an appeal for you to follow my lead. What you do in your life, and with your life, is strictly your business. But what I do hope you take away from this article is an increased capacity to keep your own problems in perspective and recognize just how fortunate you are that you haven’t taken that wrong turn in the road. Whenever I come across a street beggar, it’s a reminder to me of how minor my problems are compared to the problems of those who have permanently lost their way on this side of the secular/nonsecular divide.

Above all, I hope that my words remind you of just how important it is to make the effort to at least meet your friends and loved ones in the hurt, particularly your children. Love and understanding could very well be the difference between a child’s becoming an honor student and going on to a stellar career at a top university and beyond … or evolving into an angry kid in a black trench coat whose life ends in tragedy.

Seung-Hui Cho’s deeds at Virginia Tech on the last day of his life were indeed dastardly. About that there can be no doubt. But there is also no doubt that he was an individual who for years endured unbearable torment and pain. Which is why a compassionate person is left to wonder if Cho’s wrong turn might have been avoided – as well as the deaths of thirty-two innocent individuals – had enough people made the effort to meet him in the hurt.

Copyright © 2011 Robert Ringer
is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron’s, and The New York Times.


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