The public agony of John Hinckley Jr.'s parents mirrors the private agony of many fathers and mothers. Could the parents have done something differently to prevent their son or daughter from going astray? Might the Hinckleys' son not have tried to assassinate the President if they had hung on a little longer instead of sending him away from home as a psychiatrist suggested? What parental heart could fail to be touched when this father broke down and saw this stern decision -- ''You're on your own. Do whatever you want'' -- as the greatest mistake of his life?

Such moments may come to parents. But they are not the time to dwell on the past, on what might have been. They can be the impulse to look ahead, to consider how the parents' love can best be expressed now. By recalling such promise to others as well as themselves, the Hinckleys' ordeal could serve a healing purpose far beyond the courtroom.

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