In golf, a mulligan is the answer to an errant shot. It's a do over. Hit a bad shot and ask for a Mulley. "Fuhgeddaboudit!" the mulligan says, "Drop a new ball and play on."
In our culture, a mulligan is the answer to an errant life. It's a do over. Make a mistake and ask for a second chance. "Of course," says the mulligan, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
The belief that we can always start over – that things can always be made better – has been a defining characteristic of the United States and, at times, our greatest strength.
But in the past decade or so, our habitual deference to the second shot (played without penalty) has become a national handicap.
"The God I believe in is a god of second chances," Bill Clinton professed. "America is the land of the second chance," George W. Bush followed, "and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."
We live in an age of the gimme, where the path ahead of us (tight fairways, deep roughs, fast greens) is so littered with the divots of entitlement that we can no longer gauge an accurate distance to the hole.
Our unprecedented financial bailout and sloppy political rollbacks reflect a pervasive habit of mind in contemporary culture that demands another shot. Ours is the land of opportunity, after all, where there is always a better lie from which to play.
But an outcome is still just the sum of its effects. In a game of mulleys, what does "par" actually signify? And in an economy of expensive government interventions, what do the words "free market" mean?
To be "free," we must remember, is to be free to fail. This is getting harder and harder to do because we can't seem to live with our mistakes.
I see this especially with our children, where exceedingly forgiving technologies and overly ambitious performance measures make it easy for them to get stuck in perpetual redo.
Our little first-grader, for example, doodles with erasable crayons, correctable markers, and "oops-proof" washable tempuras.
For our 8-year-old video gamer, the rhythmical answer to narrow defeat is a ubiquitous "start over" button. Picture Day at our daughter's middle school comes with Picture Retake Day; Second Picture Retake Day or (for an additional $12) a Retouch Package to erase unsightly signs of prepubescence.
And at the university where I work, course withdrawals are on the rise – where students pay for and withdraw from (later to reenroll and repay for) a class, rather than stick out a rough start or chance a deficient GPA.
"You don't know what pressure is," pro golfer Lee Trevino once remarked, "until you've played for five dollars a hole with only two in your pocket."
I fear that this is the very predicament our children will inherit. It is the mulligan's legacy.
Now more than ever, we've gotta play through our bad shots and learn to sink the ball we start with. Because ultimately, the only thing a mulley has to offer is false confidence.