05/14/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

I Didn't Do It! Politics and the Culture of Denial

When first confronted in July 2008 by journalists about his affair with staffer Rielle Hunter and the possibility that her baby was his, then candidate Jonathan Edwards angrily declared, "I have no idea what you're asking about... I don't respond to these lies... I stand by that." In January of 2010, after first claiming that the child was fathered by another of his staffers, he finally admitted both to the affair and that he, indeed was the father. Today he is on trial for allegedly using over $1 million in political donations to hide that very affair.

When I was a kid in school I was constantly getting into trouble. I was the student whose name every teacher knew by heart by the end of the first day of class. I was forever being moved around the classroom and separated from my friends in the faint hope that by isolating me I would learn to sit still, stop talking so much in class and behave like a model student. Needless to say it never worked.

As a result of constantly being busted for one transgression or another I gained a reputation with every teacher and became the default guilty party in the teacher's mind whether I actually did anything wrong or not.

It wasn't a pretty situation in which to find myself as a diminutive, insecure child and I quickly developed the habit of immediately proclaiming my innocence whenever anything happened in class. Long before Transcendental Meditation became popular I had invented my own favorite mantras: "I didn't do it," and "It wasn't' me."

I don't share this merely to point out that there is hope for all hyper-active kids if even I could manage to eventually sit still in school long enough to earn two bachelors degrees, two masters degrees, and a Ph.D. Rather I can't help thinking about my checkered student past simply by watching the nightly news. From the secret service, to waffling of presidential candidates, to the start of the Jonathan Edwards trial, I seem constantly confronted with an American culture steeped in dismissal and denial.

When students ask me how they will know when they have finally become an adult, I always tell them that the one quality that distinguishes maturity from immaturity is the willingness to accept responsibility for one's actions. I truly believe that the day I grew up was the day I realized that whatever I had or didn't have in my life and whatever I did or did not accomplish in my life depended totally upon me and me alone.

"If it is to be it will be from me" became my new mantra of personal responsibility. I realize that searching for scapegoats is a natural human response to our fear of facing the consequences of our own actions. Yet when public figures get into trouble it is hardly ever because of the mistake in their judgment or behavior, but mostly because of their inability to admit their mistake and ask forgiveness. The denial and cover-up are almost always worse than the crime itself.

Imagine what kind of world we would live in if every one of us became willing to move beyond the scapegoats of our lives? If we stopped looking for a "them" to blame and hold responsible for the world's ills? If it wasn't the fault of the Democrats or the Republicans, the rich or the poor, the immigrants or the home born, the Muslims or the Jews, but simply up to you and up to me. Just imagine the kind of world we might be able to pass down to the next generation. My first grade teacher would never believe it.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. is the author of many books, including Children of Character - Leading Your Children to Ethical Choices in Everyday Life.