Am I the only one who has noticed how many hit and runs there are lately, as reported on the news? Whether it is local news or city news, or national news, the morning bulletins always seem to include a hit-and-run injury or death. It makes me think about who was behind the wheel, who drove away. And sometimes I have a vague and uncomfortable sympathy, or even feel complicity, as if the driver could be me. How could it happen? Could I ever do such a thing? I try to put myself in that driver’s place.
Once, in the Queens College parking lot I bumped the front grill of another parked car. No one was in it. I looked around to see if anyone was there. (Why? Was I contemplating running?) Eventually, I put a note on the windshield before I drove away, but believe me, it was a close thing. I wanted not to. And another time, as a light changed from red to green, a kid ran across the street and hit the hood of my car. Hear how I said that? He hit me. In my eyes, I had done nothing wrong. And he kept on going and looked as if he were all right. So, how bad would it have been for me, convinced as I was that no one was hurt, and in a sense the “injured party” to have kept on going?
I didn’t. But was this “doing the right thing” or just “obeying the law?” (I’m pretty sure they are not always the same thing.) Or, as a matter of fact, was it a third thing: Not getting caught. I am also pretty sure that my actions were a combination of all those things. How much of what we think of as good character is really about not getting caught, doing what appears to be the “right thing”? How much is a rather loose distinction between right and wrong? And what makes one thing seem okay and another not?
When we were kids it was not unheard of for a group of friends to chip in so one of them could get into the movies, and that one would sneak down and open the Exit door for the others. Though it was certainly against the law, I’m pretty sure those kids did not think of it that way. In their minds it was a “prank,” not an unlawful act. Maybe because it was fun? Those same kids would be less likely to cheat on tests at school.
When I worked part time in a bookstore, I routinely helped myself to a certain raspberry marshmallow heart we sold around Valentine’s Day. I never fooled myself that I would pay for it later. I never told my boss to take it out of my paycheck. I confess, I called it a “whale of a sale.” I took that raspberry marshmallow heart wholeheartedly, because I was hungry, it was delicious, I worked hard and I deserved it. Yet if someone gives me too much change at the store, I return it, and if someone in front of me on the street drops a twenty, I tell him. What’s the difference?
Is it wrong if you run a stop sign when there are no other cars on the road and there is no one there to see you? When you don’t signal pulling into your own driveway? Or tell the store clerk that you forgot your 30% off coupon at home when you didn’t get one? Those are little things that don’t hurt anyone else. But how about when you look away from something rather than having to see it and do something about it? A friend of mine once said, when she went into the city one sweltering summer day and saw more homeless people than ever before in doorways, on sidewalks, and people averting their eyes and hurrying by, that she felt she was seeing the decline of civilization. A little thing to hurry by, but maybe a big thing, too?
What makes good character? How do these little things end up making some people think it is all right to double bill their customers or overcharge their services, or keep a twenty that someone in front of them drops?
Certainly no one is pure, but it is hard not to see the slope, even as we slip down it, and I am wondering whether in our present time, we are less able to make distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad because we are, as a society, unhappy. We are jumpy. A lot of us feel misunderstood, or angry, or deprived. Is this what blurs the line between wanting to avoid trouble and causing it? Between aversion and aggression? You can legislate a lot of things, but anger will out. So is this what makes drivers drive like they are escaping from the law, or escaping from the misery of their lives?
What does character mean in the context of today?