As a mom I often found myself stewing more over parenting decisions that I felt had been wrong rather than celebrating what I knew I had done right. As a teacher I often ended each school day more concerned about my mistakes than the successful moments that had made a difference in my students’ lives. It is human nature to somehow see the flaws around us and then generalize them as being far bigger than they actually are. We read about a cheating scandal in college admissions and fret that perhaps the whole system is stacked against those who follow the rules. So it is with society in general. We worry that maybe our naivety is working against us in what must surely be a dog eat dog world in which the liars and cheaters are surely gaining the edge but is that really true or does it have to be?
My parents taught me to be honest and forthright from a young age. They abhorred cheating while admitting that they were not above glancing at an opponent’s cards if they were in view. They taught me the value of being trustworthy in all ways. Such ideas were reinforced by my education in the Catholic faith where lying and cheating were classified as sins ranging from venial to mortal on a continuum of how seriously they harmed others. I took those lessons quite seriously and have done my utmost to be honest even as I witnessed others flaunting the codes that guided me.
I suppose that I developed a kind of indignant self righteous pride in myself for being a good girl and it remained that way until I had an interesting conversation with my mother who had a kind of wisdom that is not often found in books. I admitted to Mama that I was infuriated with Hillary Clinton for staying with Bill after he had broken his vows to her so often and so publicly. I boasted that I would have thrown him to the curb as I believed that any self respecting woman would have. My mother listened to my screed with an increasingly amused look on her face which told me that she was about to make a pronouncement that would rattle my certainty in my own judgement. Once I had completed my arguments my mother presented her rebuttal in a paucity of words, “It is none of our business.”
A stunned silence hung over the room as I considered what she had just said. Then she quietly explained that until we fully and wholly become the other person there is no way that we can know why they make the choices that they do. She urged me to stand by my own principles of morality but to be more circumspect in generalized judgements of others. Then she winked and reminded me that being honest and trustworthy and surrounding myself with like minded people as I had done was a wonderful gift in and of itself. She noted that I should be happy for understanding right from wrong and being guided by a set of standards.
I can say with all honesty that I do not cheat nor do I know of any instance in which someone has cheated me or cheated on me. As my mother noted I live in a rare kind of bubble devoid of intrigue. I really do not understand what might drive someone to cheat and when I hear of such instances I do indeed become angry and maybe even a bit jealous that there are so many who seemingly get by with being dishonorable. I happen to think that one of the biggest problems we have today is that we have even elevated individuals who lie and cheat and steal as heroes. I see their success and it is easy to become irked and resentful but then I remember my mother’s words and know that by following a code of honor as much as I possibly can I ultimately have something that such people will never understand. It’s value is immeasurable. I have personal respect.
I have to be careful not to brag too much because like any human I have moments when I think that it would be okay to fudge just a bit on reporting my tiny income from tutoring to the IRS. I see people taking advantage of situations with impunity and wonder if anyone would really be hurt if I did so as well. I am as tempted to throw my principles to the wind as anyone and I have to remind myself of the beliefs that have been ingrained in me. I have to remember that I can only be a model of what I think to be right but I cannot ultimately change others unless they choose to do so. My hope is that they will view me as someone to respect rather than as a chump or loser of whom to take advantage. I have to watch out for them and their guile while not emulating their lack of virtue.
I worry most about the messages being sent to our young people these days. Honor is all too often considered to be something only foolish people possess. We now give adulation to people who boast about their foul deeds and condemn those who quietly stand up for moral beliefs. Individuals who steal from the public get pardoned and those who voice truths get ridiculed. It must be very confusing for our children to witness such things. All we can do is be models of the behaviors we hope for them to follow and let them know as my mother did that striving to be good is its own reward. Teach your children well. They will need your guidance in navigating the world.