Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Character is higher than intellect. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

A couple weeks ago I found a sticky note on my car window when I went to drive home at the end of the work day.

I scratched your car. Backed into it. Left side, front tireish. Have meeting, here's my # ....

I looked for the scratch, wondered whether it was her left or my left, looked again and, sure enough, there was a slight smudge on the bumper. I was stunned. Who does that anymore? Who actually owns up to backing into a car, especially if the damage was minimal - really I would not have noticed until I washed the car again (sometime next summer!) I called the number and it was one of our students (I work at a university). I suspect she thought I was a tad wacky as I went on and on about how much I appreciated her doing the right thing and leaving a note.

But then I got to wondering...why did this make such an impression on me? All she did was the "right" thing...but it was at the end of a week where I had been equally stunned by people NOT doing the "right" thing, which is the more common behavior these days.

The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay

I have always had a very clear sense of the absolute rightness or wrongness of certain behaviors. I credit my mother for this. I vividly remember being gathered up with my brothers to drive back to the milk store, twenty minutes away, because my mother realized that she had been given too much change. She told me once that her father would not park at a meter that still had time on it from the previous person because he did not believe that you should get something for nothing. He would have been benefiting from the expense of another.

A high-school friend recently reminded me of a talk that I gave during my senior year. This was a Christian school and all seniors were required to give a chapel talk once during the year. Apparently I spoke about integrity and I told the story of a man who had a job interview over dinner in a restaurant. At the end of the meal the man took a couple pats of butter (the kind that sit on the tiny square of cardboard with a square of waxy paper on top) and slipped them in the pocket of his jacket. The interview had gone very well, however he did not get the job. If he would take advantage of small things, how could be be trusted with great responsibilities? I don't remember the talk and I have no idea where I got that story from, but I found it amusing that I have always been this rigid. And then I was thankful. I called my mother and thanked her for the example she was to me even as a small child first developing a sense of right and wrong.

Does this mean that I have lived a life of unfailing integrity. No. Hardly! I have not always been honest. I have gone long periods living dis-honestly, but the conflict that caused inside landed me in therapy: for years. But even then, I had a rigidness about certain things and my own actions fell short of who I really was.

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion. ~Abraham Lincoln

I believe that at the core, people are good. Small children have a sharp sense of being "good" or "bad." But in time this internal compass gets beaten up until for many it no longer points in the right direction and that intrinsic guide gets lost. From the start I told my kids to pay attention to how they felt inside. When they would do something, good or bad, I would ask how it made them feel. But I believe many kids are numbed because regardless of what they are feeling inside, they are seeing the contrary lived out around them. Or they are directed only by the fear of consequences, so they learn at an early age to succeed at hiding things, rather than to just do the right thing.

But this is all on my mind because of the unethical behavior of some adults. I have recently witnessed a person in a significant position of authority come up with a neat little plan to take advantage; to get something for nothing, and this has required the "buy-in" of several others. The work-arounds required make it clear that those involved know this is absolutely wrong, perhaps illegal, but clearly the small gain is worth that risk? Regardless, it is just wrong. I need to determine what to do with my knowledge of the situation.

God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless. ~Chester W. Nimitz