Under duress, people show the real stuff that they are made of. Some of my favorite books and movies are those that delve into the true character of the, er, characters, and show the strengths or weaknesses they possess. It’s easy to judge those people from the perspective of the cozy couch you are sitting on while reading, but the real question is, who are you when severely tested?
There are small tests of character that we all undergo every day. While driving, do you let the guy waiting on a side street finally get into traffic in front of you, or do you roll by and avoid his eyes? If someone tells a joke that makes you uncomfortable, do you tell them that you were offended, or do you just let out a little nervous laugh so as to not offend them? Do you pocket the extra change the clerk in the supermarket gave you, or do you tell her she gave you too much? We are all flawed in some way, and it doesn’t mean you are the devil incarnate if you have taken the low road in these situations. Anyone who pretends to be 100% flawless is probably hiding worse flaws than the rest of us admitted “sinners”. I don’t necessarily mean religious people, but anyone who claims to do the right thing is frankly a liar. It’s an impossible standard.
That is not to say that the burden is not on all of us to do the right thing, important or barely consequential, all the time. I remember someone saying that character is doing the right thing, even when you don’t think anyone is watching. Some religions or cultures have some pretty strict rules about what the “right” things are, but I’m taking a pretty permissive definition here. If you aren’t intentionally causing harm to yourself or anyone else, breaking the law, or doing things that any human being would consider despicable, go do your thing. Well, I mean, if the law is clearly stupid (ahem, like the new laws regarding which bathrooms transgendered people should use), feel free to disregard that nonsense. But if the things you are doing are making your conscience ache, or keeping you up at night, it’s time to take an internal inventory.
There are cops and lawyers to keep us in check legally, and for those that subscribe to one religion or another, their religious communities and leaders, holy books, etc, will dictate what you should be doing. Family and friends guide us, and call us out on our behavior if we get too far out of line. However, for most of us, the heavy lifting has to be done internally. Should I have shared that confidence with that third party? Why did I do it, was it to be mean to the person who shared their secret with me, or to help them in some way? Why did I take that extra box of office supplies from the cabinet, and then bring them home for personal use? Am I angry at my employer, and this is a petty bit of revenge? Shouldn’t I try to make the situation better, and get to the bottom of the problem, rather than exacting passive aggressive revenge? Why was I so angry at that other driver for doing that minor thing? Who am I really mad at that I can’t yell at, or why am I taking others’ driving mistakes so personally?
It’s not fun taking a personal inventory and finding yourself wanting. But getting clear on the reasons behind your behavior, deciding on the standards you want to live by, and setting yourself a goal to walk your talk, is a challenging and rewarding thing to do. Once we are clear on what we expect from ourselves, then it will be somewhat easier to know the right path when we are faced with the big challenges. Do I think that Mom would want me to turn off her life support? Is it the right and reasonable thing to do, if I am being rational and kind instead of solely emotional and sentimental? Should I tell on the person stealing in my office, even if I might face terrible retribution, even lose my job?
What if there really IS a zombie apocalypse, and I find myself having to kill some people to save my loved ones. Could I do it? Would I leave others to die in a bad situation and save myself, or would I be brave and try to save them? Of course, there will never be a real zombie apocalypse, but the plethora of movies and tv shows on the subject offer both escapism and a vehicle to examine our own motivations and choices when the zombie brains hit the fan.
Which do you do, the right thing, which is often the much harder thing, or the easy thing, which may cost you in other ways? I hope that you are striving to do the right thing. I’m not all the way there, as all of the times I am late for work will attest, but I strive.