What keeps us on the straight and narrow? Why do we not steal, hurt and cheat at every opportunity? Aside from the obvious scientific arguments that humans are moral animals or that we obey rules of natural law, the question is of great interest. My four year old is trying to discern which behaviour may result in gaol time. Threats of calling the police seem to work with him. Hell and damnation seem to work a treat with his brother. Let me stress that I am not the one making these threats!
So assuming we are basically good, though capable of doing wrong, what keeps us honest besides the threat of punishment? I was contemplating this in light of my long overdue trip to the confessional this Holy Week. I always feel a bit fraudulent as I sheepishly wander in with my list of sins, many of which are the same now as they were in 1978, when I first gave this any thought. ...Not being kind, critical and intolerant. Perhaps my rather lacklustre transgressions are a a reflection more of the banality of my life than my essential "goodness".
Certainly, being out of the mainstream workforce brings little in the way of temptation. At least in the office the odd exaggeration on a time sheet or theft of Post It notes gave one something to feel bad about. An extra long lunch could always be seen as stealing time or bearing false witness. The occasional snide remark about fellow employees or manager explained away - stress of the moment and all that. But working from home does not offer the same opportunities/perks. Stealing chocolate from oneself is hardly a crime - though the pimples on the chin really ought to be. Pilfering paper or surfing the net on the employer's time is likewise a non-event. Rather, I surf on the children's time on the basis that it is good for them to amuse themselves; I use paper I paid for but which they think is theirs and I am known to mutter uncharitable things about them and their father under my breath from time to time. Let she who is without sin cast the first stone.
I recall once being undercharged for a coffee. With an infant in tow I immediately alerted the attendant and gave back the extra change, feeling compelled to set the right example for my son. Ironically, he still struggles with the idea that one gets change back when one pays for something. The psychological underpinnings of that mentality will await another posting... In any case, while one might justify keeping overpaid change (Tesco can afford a 40p loss on me) or not correcting a miscalculated bill (it's all built into the cost of doing business afterall), being responsible for raising decent citizens changes things somewhat. Mind you, children aside, it is good to feel good and right as often as one can.
One is not always so deeply rooted on the moral high-ground though. I have to admit that I once discovered unpaid for carrots buried under an old nappy and the Cat in the Hat in the pushchair basket. Lawyerly inner voice assured me there was no intent to permanently deprive Sainsbury of its carrots! It was an accident. I was home before I realised. I had a crying baby with me and was distracted. Who would want old grimy carrots stored under a nappy anyway? You see - now I protest too much.
So, do the myriad little wrongdoings really count? Are 10 little white lies motivated by selfish whims as bad as one huge betrayal? Is there a sin balance sheet? A score card? Are there bonus or demerit points if the sin is well executed or justified? Is it a sin if there is justification, or excuse? Analogous to income that is exempt from tax as opposed to income that was never taxable in the first place...
It matters to me because selective lying might be one of my strengths. Principles higher than honestly always are at play - like self-preservation, keeping the peace and sparing someone's feelings. Nevertheless, as I prepare to make good for Easter and my sons grapple with what they need to do to stay out of gaol and Hell, (oh and the hands of baddies, dentists and mean girls), I muse over how and why we resist the temptation to do wrong, own up to our mistakes and endeavour not to repeat them.
A work in progress.