In a televised interview this past week Mark McGuire (Big Mac), one of major league baseball’s greatest home run hitters ever, admitted something he’s never been willing to admit before, even during a United States congressional hearing. He finally conceded that during the time he was setting all his hitting records as a St. Louis Cardinals he was also using steroids—a substance banned by the league and dangerous to any user’s long-term health. Yet his “confession” felt deeply unsatisfying to most people who watched it; the missing ingredient was compunction.
Compunction is very old-fashioned word, almost excised from the modern vocabulary. It means heart-felt sorrow, profound regret and stinging remorsefulness. Usually tears accompany it, but they are not “poor me” tears. They are tears for the pain of others whom we have let down or wounded. Compunction means we are so nauseated by what we have done that henceforth we will do nothing but honestly and fervently denounce it. Genuine compunction refuses to minimize the wrongfulness of what was done; it refuses to speak evasively, engage in self-defense, or slyly pass off part of the blame onto others.
But back to this baseball story: just about everyone who followed baseball already knew the truth about McGuire, who rapidly bulked up into a ferocious man with a disturbing intensity. Confession is good for the soul, and in this instance, also potentially helpful in securing a new job on the coaching staff of his old team. McGuire’s “confession speech” deserves a careful listen, because what it contains tells us quite a bit about the person himself.
In his speech Big Mac (now a shrunken version of his playing physique) claimed that the steroids he used for about six years were only to accelerate muscle healing, and had no direct impact on his hitting prowess—a “God-given” talent he felt obliged to employ by whatever means necessary. Mark McGuire would like to be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown someday, and to that end he needs his records to stand. But if you can buy his argument, we have, as the saying goes, some oceanfront property for you in Arizona.
What makes the Mark McGuire story significant is that he represents an increasingly familiar pattern of response to wrongdoing. We have grown accustomed to hearing wrongdoers conceding that “mistakes were made,” by which passive phrasing the perpetrator of the error is conveniently unidentified, and the moral enormity just as conveniently downgraded to a mistake. We are accustomed now to the convicted perpetrator encouraging the accusing public not to dwell on the past but to look ahead—a convenient enough admonition when the problem under scrutiny happens to lie in the recent past. In religious circles the cornered perpetrator suddenly becomes an advocate of sound doctrine, preaching to the church that grace and mercy should always prevail over imperfections.
The more sobering reality is that as a society we are becoming more like Mark McGuire. Yet the spiritual wisdom of the ancient Christian tradition is that without compunction there is no real repentance, and without real repentance there cannot be any significant improvement in character or change in behavior. Underneath all the performance art, it will still be the same old flawed and conniving person. This is truth that is easier to comprehend than to live up to under pressure. But compunction is essential to a better future, and that future must start with us. Even if, I know, everybody’s doing it.