Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NONFICTION: The Truth and What's Right

Less than an hour ago I was standing, naked, in my bathroom about to get a shower. I looked into the mirror and noticed that my bottom jaw was trembling. Tears began to well in my eyes. As I stared into the brown of my iris I wondered exactly who I was looking at and if he was embarrassed to be looking back at me. I am a good person. At least I think I am.

In 1976 America was celebrating its bicentennial. The year saw two presidents, the Reds won the World Series, and the Dodge Aspen was Motor Trend’s car of the year. It was on a February day in that year that I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to Dan and Deloris Fugate.

Both of my parents grew up in northern Kentucky and they each had led difficult lives. As one of several in either family they sometimes had to go without. It was for that reason that they made sure I felt secure in the fact that all of my needs were being met; even if it meant that they, again, would have to go without. They taught me about Jesus and love, right and wrong, consequence and discipline, and sacrifice. From the smallest molecule of myself I believe in the right and wrong that my parents worked so hard to instill. But there are things that happen that never came up in conversation before. Questions that my parents’ teachings don’t have answers for. These are tests of how well I truly understand what they taught me.

I don’t remember if I was three or four. The numeric and factual details have left me but the important ones, the emotions and the lesson learned, are well intact. My parents took me with them to visit a friend. The driveway was bumpy and the windshield wipers could barely keep up with the rain as it fell onto the windshield of my father’s truck. While my parents were visiting with their friends I played with their son and his toys. After some time my parents and I left. I pulled the faded red plastic airplane from beneath my hat and began flying it around the back seat of the truck. Mom realized that I was playing with a toy that wasn’t mine and asked me where I’d gotten it. I didn’t want to tell her but I did. As I stood back at my parents’ friends’ house telling them and their son that I’d taken his toy I learned that it is wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. I am sure that I’d been told more than once before but now, when I was faced with it, it made sense.

Twenty seven or so years later I was turning thirty. In those 30 years I had been the baby, the good boy, the high school graduate, the only college graduate, fat, thin, a fiancĂ© and a husband but I’d never been a risk taker.

We were camping at a state park to celebrate my 30th birthday. The cold had saturated our bodies and everyone went for a walk to warm up; everyone but me. I stayed behind to stoke up the fire. I don’t know if it was the stress of turning 30 or the beginning of a long mid-life crisis. Maybe it was a combination of both coupled with the dirty thoughts that I needed to take some chances in my life but it was definitely a bad idea. While my wife and friends were walking and after I had stoked the fire I went to a different campsite and took a fire ring. It was a rusty steel hoop about three feet across. I knew that in one action I could take a chance and have a nice enclosure for the fires in my back yard. But I’m not a thief and I’m no good at being sneaky. Under the clear winter sun someone saw me loading that bulky thing into the back seat of the car. As we were leaving the campground I saw the park police waiting. The feeling started deep within my stomach. It was kind of like the excited butterfly feeling that I get before going on stage but instead of feeling good it felt more like someone had grabbed my insides and was shaking them. I knew why he was there and I was afraid. He stopped our car and I got out to speak with him. I didn’t want to but I told him what had happened and took full responsibility for my actions. I had been so straight laced and cautious in the years since the airplane incident and the event came to mind as I stood talking with this man.

As I spoke with the judge, recalling the incident, I still couldn’t nail down my reasoning. In one action responsibility turned to stupidity and the judge could sense my remorse. I entered a pre trial diversion program and requested that my community service be done at the state park that I had wronged. After I had completed my service to the park I wrote an apology letter to the ranger. He accepted and let the judge know. My record was no longer tarnished and I received a strong reminder of the lesson that I’d learned all those years ago.

This is only one of the myriad reasons that my jaw was trembling. I’m overly insecure and it doesn’t take much to make me question who I am. Did the event at the park make me a bad person? Was I already a bad person before this? I think that since I knew that I’d done wrong and I was basically doing it for that purpose the answer to both of those questions is no. Life is full of choices and the decisions that we make demonstrate the truth of who we are. Sure, I’d tried to take something that wasn’t mine but I immediately admitted my wrongdoing. I believe that if I’d gotten home with that fire ring I would have felt guilty and paranoid that one day I’d come home and find the police waiting for me.

This brings me to another question. Do we try to do good because it makes us feel good or because we are afraid of the repercussions? Perhaps it is a combination of both. We make decisions about right and wrong constantly. Laws are black and white, right and wrong, but the real situations that we find ourselves confronted with are more complicated than that. It is illegal to steal but not to commit adultery. By the rules of the law it seems to stand to reason that it is okay to do one but not the other then. I would assume, however, that we all know that either is wrong and laws aren’t all right or well thought out. If someone has to steal to provide for his family he has broken the law but he is doing what is best for his family. That is, assuming that stealing isn’t his career but rather a choice that he was forced into…a temporary solution to an ongoing problem.

We have to think about all aspects and consequences of what we do. In my case, I did fall into the burning ring of fire and perhaps it is a metaphor for a decline into sin and toward Hell. Before and since that event I have been an honest person. Shame can serve as a valuable reminder of what we are made of and why we do and don’t do things. I’ve made poor decisions but they’ve usually been made with the best of intentions. I am a good person.


  1. In my autobiography for school, I wrote about a series of negatives that led to the positive: parents’ divorce at eight, neither parent wanting me, living from relative to relative, reverse racism, no sense of self, feelings of worthlessness. I tried to please everyone to my own detriment in an attempt prove my own value.

    Not until I became a Christian did I find purpose and value. As Christians, we are clothed in His righteousness. That is as good as it gets. That makes us just as good as anyone else-no greater, no less.

    A preacher once told me that he feels some people are born with greater moral fiber--more conscience that makes us more introspective. At times that introspection causes me to feel regret about my life, remorse about decisions I’ve made. However those feelings are now short-lived, because I have learned that I have done and continue to do the best I can. I have learned to forgive others, and especially forgive myself. I am a good person—just not a perfect person. I am sure you are the same.

  2. Dan,

    Wow, this is a brutally honest piece. You are a fantastic writer; I always enjoy reading your posts. You grab the reader's interest from the first sentence which is not an easy thing to do. Have you thought of writing a novel or writing opinion pieces for newspapers or magazines. Very insightful stuff. Wish I could write like you, but I can only handle simple, stuff for the kiddies. Great writing! Looking forward to more posts.

  3. As an atheist and a "good person" I would like to address the concepts presented here. I posit that conscience is an innate trait of humanity, but only because we have logical wiring. It is the data that dictates which situations we respond to.

    For instance, if you had been taught that stealing was fine, as long as you were not caught, your sense of conscience wouldn't have caused any consternation until/unless you were caught. Had you made it out of the park (and you would have been more likely to if taking it were reflex and not getting caught had become the prime focus) you would have felt nothing more than the satisfaction that comes with making a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

    This has been tested, and all of the data dictates there is no built in 'right' or 'wrong', that is a learned behavior, learned throughout life and reinforced with positive and/or negative reinforcement. Praise for doing 'the right thing' from a parent or respected authority figure results in the brain releasing a euphoria-inducing drug into our system, and negative reinforcement (although proven less effective) similarly rearranges the "wiring" in our brain... in fact these actually change the way electricity flows in our brains and hardwires our thoughts.

    Societal laws are built to protect unwilling participants, those that may not be able to protect themselves. If you steal from someone's home while they are on vacation it will usually be labeled "breaking and entering", if you steal from their pocket or take their auto at gunpoint it carries a different label. If, however, you have sex with a willing adult, regardless of marital status, there is less victimization. People aren't property, so it is impossible to "take my woman", or "steal her from me" unless the real crime is kidnapping.

    Moral laws are evolutionary. If you "take my woman" and it leads to tribal war, or the use of a large handgun, especially in more primitive tribal communities, could damage the group, cause disharmony, interrupt work habits... in short, these things became frowned upon. And they change. What is considered immoral now is much different than what was immoral a couple thousand years ago. Further proof that it isn't hardwired.

    Also, great Ring of Fire reference. Was that an intentional tribute to the Man in Black, or simply a witty play on an old expression?

  4. Benjamin - I agree with all of your points with the exception of one. Even if I had gotten out of the park with the ring I would have still been paranoid and riddled with guilt. That grilled cheese would have tasted of remorse. I'm certain of it.

    The knowledge of right and wrong is taught but the concepts, as you stated, become ingrained. Also, they do evolve with societal norms. A 'good person' is universally a good person as dictated by generally accepted behaviors.

    Yes, that was a tip of the hat to Johnny Cash.

  5. One point... I was saying that if you had been raised to believe that stealing was fine and getting caught was not then you wouldn't have felt any remorse you had gotten away with it. The way you were raised has programmed you in such a way that I agree, you would have been riddled with guilt induced paranoia.

    Also, societal norms have a huge influence, however, there are people raised in "morally responsible" societies that break convention. In fact there are a lot of them. There are plenty of people who are hard-wired for acceptable amounts of honesty that will steal or cheat on their taxes, and there is a process of self justification that follows.

    There is a fantastic book, "Don't Believe Everything You Think", which deals with how the brain handles these small conflicts in morality.