A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


True story: a woman calls her husband at work.

“Honey,” she says, “we’ve got a problem.”

Uh-oh, he thinks to himself.  Whenever she says “we have a problem,” he’s usually the one in trouble.  So he quickly scans the ol’ memory banks to see if he can figure out what he needs to apologize for.  Let’s see . . . her birthday is still a few months away.  Their wedding anniversary was six months ago.  He remembers putting yesterday’s dirty socks in the hamper.  And he’s pretty sure he put the lid back on the toothpaste.

“OK,” he responds hesitantly, “what did I do?”

“Nothing,” she replies, chuckling, “unless you ordered this cable TV movie service.”

He reminds her of their mutual decision to pass on the premium channel, since basic cable is about all the televiewing luxury their budget can handle right now.

“That’s what I thought,” she says.  “So why are we getting the channel?”

He explains that they have these free preview weekends all the time.  By giving you a taste of their service, they hope to entice you into signing up full-time.

“But the preview was two weeks ago,” she says.  “Why are we still getting it?”

It’s a good question.  The only thing they can conclude is someone somewhere forgot to disconnect their household when the preview was over.  Through no fault of their own they were receiving a valuable service without having to pay for it.

“So,” the man finally asks, “what’s the problem?”

“The problem,” the woman replies patiently, “is that we shouldn’t be receiving it.”

“But that’s not our fault,” he responds.  “I mean, it’s not like we tapped into the cable box to steal the signal or anything.  It’s their mistake, so it’s their problem.”

“Maybe,” she says.  “But is it right for us to allow that mistake to continue?  If they charged us too much by mistake we’d make sure they knew about it, wouldn’t we?”

“Well . . . yes.  But that’s different.”

“Is it really?” she asks.  She pauses before hauling out the heavy artillery.  “The thing is, the kids know what’s going on, and for whatever it’s worth, they agree with you (translation: Sweetheart, you’re thinking like an adolescent again).  But I worry about the message we’re sending if we allow this to go on.  Are we saying that honesty is relative, and that it’s OK to take advantage of someone else’s mistake if it works out in your favor?”

Don’t you hate it when that happens?  You just get settled into a comfortable position of moral apathy, and along comes someone who, in a few simple words, can reduce the question to a simple case of right vs. wrong.  It’s like you’re painting a situational landscape with assorted shades of gray, which you find perfectly satisfying until someone introduces you to the functional clarity of black and white.

So guess what?  That family’s TV isn’t connected to a cable movie service any more.  But I think they have something infinitely more fulfilling: self-respect.  And integrity.  And a little more appreciation for what it really means to be honest.

Their experience even got our family talking about honest.  And we’ve come to a couple of interesting conclusions.  First, we decided that honesty simplifies life in a world that is growing frighteningly complex.  On a superficial level, that means it’s a lot easier to keep your facts straight if you always tell the truth, and there’s less stress around the office if you don’t have to worry about justifying your expense account.  But more than that, living honestly allows us to feel good in the presence of the only person who knows for sure if we are honest: ourselves.  And it gives us a chance to build relationships on a solid foundation of confidence, security and trust.

And second, it’s been our experience that it’s harder to do “just one” dishonest act than it is to eat “just one” potato chip.  Dishonesty tends to breed dishonesty.  The child who steals a quarter from Dad’s dresser may very well lie to cover up the deed.  The teenager who cheats on a test at school may not have been telling the truth about his homework, either.  And the spouse who fudges on marriage vows often leaves behind a sordid trail of dishonesty and deception.  Selective integrity doesn’t build moral muscles; it weakens them.

With or without cable TV movies.

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— © Joseph Walker

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