Over the past couple of weeks, America grew enchanted with the story of Ted Williams, a homeless man who became a YouTube sensation after showing off his astonishing voice. His casual speaking voice sounds like the most polished professional announcer you’ve ever heard.
In the wake of his Internet celebrity, Williams received a number of job offers, and found himself at the Renaissance Hotel in Los Angeles after filming some TV appearances. On Monday night, he was briefly detained by police after a loud and angry argument with his daughter.
This was not good news to those who have been holding their breath and hoping Williams could parlay his talent and good fortune into a successful new life. I’ll happily admit to being one of them. The Williams story has the sparkle of a good old-fashioned American dream come true. It’s heartwarming to see a man with immense natural talent find his way to people who want to pay for that talent.
Unfortunately, Williams’ path to success carries him over some jagged rocks. He was on that street corner because he was a drug addict. He says he kicked the habit long before he came to fame, but such habits are never really gone. They are products of personality, the scabbed wounds of terrible choices that can never be unmade.
Addictions can be defeated, but they’re never “cured.” That word implies an ability to edit the human soul, rather than overpowering its darker elements through the power of noble choices. Each of us can become infinitely more than the minimal configuration of our worst elements. None of us has the power to remove those elements from our minds with surgical precision.
People are fascinated by the Williams saga because America is a deeply compassionate nation, and we love stories of redemption. Second chances are an integral part of the American saga, for they are woven from equal measures of justice and mercy. We appreciate the difference between being forgiven and excused. It is similar to the difference between charity and dependence. Forgiveness requires atonement, while charity demands effort.
How would Williams’ life be different if someone had simply tossed him a bag of cash while he stood on that street corner, instead of offering him a job? The people who hired him – and have expectations of him – are among his greatest allies in the struggle to build a better life. No one is “giving” Ted Williams anything but an opportunity to use his talents, and that is sweet music in the Land of Opportunity. The happiest ending for compassion is the delight of watching a wounded bird spread his wings and fly.
Williams was released without charges after his altercation. Happily, his second chance in life remains in progress. I hope he remains in the company of people who expect nothing less than excellence from him. In fact, I extend that hope to everyone.
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