what you do when no one is looking

13 Jun

In The Little Princess by F. H. Burnett, the main character – a young girl called Sara who starts life the daughter of an affluent Englishmen riding the boom of colonialism – falls from her position upon her father’s death and finds herself poor and friendless. Having just traded in her furs and silks for the rags of a scullery maid, Sara wonders whether she, who has been always told she is a good child, really is one. Is she truly kind and gracious, or was she merely so generous because with her wherewithal, it was easy for her to be?

Goodness, as it turns out, is very often a luxury item.

I am currently rather poor. I am lucky to have friends and roommates who can cover rent and keep me off the streets and step in when unavoidable costs carry a few too many zeroes for me to be able to handle them on my own, and who apparently even enjoy buying me coffee and lunch sometimes. I am incredibly lucky, as this allows me to allocate my income to necessities like food and medication and bus fare. It’s a precarious game, but I’m currently making my life work through the gift of social affluence.

But monetarily, I am dirt poor.

Reference scale: My ability to transport myself around L.A. can switch over the gain or loss of a single dollar.

Today, at the Springfield airport, a food vendor gave me incorrect change.

They’d given me a dollar more than I was due.

And while back in college, when what I did and did not need to pay for was different and the impact of cost scaled differently, I probably would have not hesitated to hand back that dollar, would have felt not a single qualm – today, I felt it.

I had been given a dollar. An extra dollar. That was one more bus ride I could pay for. One more granola bar. One unit closer to being able to buy a new pair of shorts, one that wasn’t years old and close to literally falling apart at the seams.

I wanted that dollar.

But that dollar was not mine.

Mentally, I went through the math again and yes, that dollar was definitely not my due. But it was just a dollar. I could walk away. No one would notice. It wasn’t like I was taking much.

But the dollar. wasn’t. mine.

And what’s more, the food vendor hadn’t given me any reason to want to take more from them. There was no karmic justice in me walking away with that dollar. The cashier had been professional, efficient, polite, even friendly. The vendor, as far as I know, wasn’t some chain with terrible corporate practices. They had done nothing to me that required restitution. Honestly, if the cashier had been some massive jerk, I maybe wouldn’t have felt so bad about contemplating walking away with that dollar. Yeah, they’d have to go through the cash register at the end of the day and try to figure out why their sales weren’t squaring up. Were off by a dollar. Just one dollar. So maybe they’d just made an addition mistake… maybe it was really there, and they’d just missed it… maybe if they just… checked again…

If I’d been somehow massively inconvenienced or wronged, maybe I could have justified inflicting those consequences for the sake of having that extra dollar. Maybe, very probably, I would have been fine with implementing that sort of system.

Or maybe I would have given the dollar back anyway. Because as much as I theoretically can support less-than-perfect actions, I carry around way too much guilt, or something, to really be able to carry out those actions myself.

Yeah. I gave the dollar back.

And while it is no great thing, giving a single dollar back to a vendor that gave you too much change – internally, for me, it still meant something.

It was an opportunity, to show myself, at least, that my goodness doesn’t just scale with my bank account. That I am honest, even when it’s very hard to afford to be. That my values last, even when they carry real cost. Even when I could have justified taking advantage of a minor slip to gain a little bit for myself.

It’s relieving, in a way. To know that at least in this small way I will actually act in reality how I’d say I would, were the scenario presented as a thought exercise. That I’d behave the way that elementary school-aged me reading The Little Princess would have told me that of course I was supposed to behave.

I like knowing that I am who I think I am, even when no one is looking.

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3 Responses to “what you do when no one is looking”

  1. Morgan June 13, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    These little things add up. It’s important.

  2. Morgan June 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    This extends beyond just wealth to so many other areas. I remember when I was deeply depressed, how much energy it took just to reach over and say something kind to a friend, and to the extent I still did that it said something about my quality as a friend. Now I’m better and its easy and its something I can do casually. Health, employment, social position, every possible advantage grants us a larger scope to take actions that help others.

    But, I was thinking about this a bit more and realized there was something I wanted to disagree with or add to this.

    I am, at long last, pretty financially secure. I have more than the recommended amount of investment assets for a person my age, I have a savings account. I don’t really feel fully responsible for that prosperity, there are certainly qualities of myself that made me capable of acting upon the opportunities i was given, but the opportunities were not my doing.

    Nowadays, I would give that dollar back in an instant without thinking about it. A dollar doesn’t really matter to me. But I would argue that means that the act of returning that dollar, for me, does not equate to goodness. At best, it means I’m not a shitty person. When those kinds of decencies are hard choices and you do them anyway, they say something about positive about the quality of your character. When they are easy they sort of just say that you meet the minimum bar of humanity.

    Now, from my place of emotional privilege, easily stated kind words to friends is sort of expected, otherwise I’m just a bad friend. What makes me good and speaks to my character now are larger acts, ones that require more thought, more risk, have a broader impact.

    I would argue that the amount friction between you and a right action is what makes the action an indicator of goodness, and privilege doesn’t make good easier, it raises the standard by which goodness should be judged. All of us privileged sons of bitches have, in the end, very little responsibility for our own prosperity. We’re vain and cruel if we don’t recognize that our luck gives us a karmic debt to repay.

  3. Timothy Johnson June 13, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    This is such a beautiful story! I’m so happy for you that you had the opportunity to prove your character.

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