A number of found objects have dropped into my life lately. Two weeks ago I found an elephant ring in my classroom and then a student’s ID. Last weekend, when my family washed blankets after a cross-country meet, we found another ring, one that belonged to the owner’s grandmother.
The biggest find came one morning on my way back from the gym. I found a wallet beside a bus stop bench. Inside were several credit cards and—though I didn’t count the money—it looked like this wallet also contained a huge amount of cash. The only clue to locate the owner was a student ID for a nearby theater training program. I returned the wallet to them, and they returned it from there… at least I hope they did. I didn’t identify myself, and, with no way to notify me, the owner had no way to respond.
All this karma won’t prevent my losing things of course, but reversing someone else’s loss and disappointment is satisfying, fulfilling even. I like to believe it gives recipients a reason to believe people are generally good at heart. Maybe it will start a chain of good deeds like those in a commercial I saw recently.
In Go Down, Moses, one of William Faulkner’s characters says, “Most people are better than their circumstances give them a chance to be,” and that statement seems accurate. Sometimes people surprise you with kindness when circumstances require it, but we might all be more loving, generous, open-minded, and forgiving if we’d received similar treatment. We might expect more of ourselves if everyone set higher standards for his or her own behavior.
A number of colleges like Rutgers have been tutoring their students in civility, trying to teach them to treat others as they’d like to be treated, but it sometimes seems as though the golden rule does battle with a perverse contemporary variation—act before you are acted upon.
We’re quick to call the actions of others cruel, but slow to own cruelty ourselves. In fact, to the perpetrator, unkindness may seem sensible, a good offense as a good defense. Where lowered behavioral expectations are cool, self-protection trumps faith, self-interest overwhelms any myth of “the common good.”
With no credible absolute morality, we have to posit one. So schools add another message to the ocean of messages pouring into our lives from media, advertising, and entertainment. It doesn’t matter that the golden rule makes sense. Nearly every message, experience tells us, is ulterior. Most messages carry second agendas. They have little intrinsic truth. Sincerity is, almost without exception, a sham.
When I went to the theater group to return the wallet, the people there greeted me with wonder and awe, as if a miracle had been visited upon them.
I loved it.
At least, I loved it until I started walking back to school, and my thoughts turned to everything lost that I would not be able to return—swindled money or money taken in “mark-ups,” downsized jobs, interest on opportunistic loans, the loyalty and support extended family once offered (before “opportunities” fractured them), and the general succor for those in trouble that we now only grant, in dollars, to people faraway.
Some lost objects seem tough to find and tougher to restore.
You may accuse me of being naïve. You may want to remind me the world has never been good and may actually be better now than it has ever been. You may say the golden rule has never been more than a pretty idea possible only in perfect circumstances. You may call me “idealist,” a label now synonymous with “dreamer.”
And I’ll only put up one defense—if I think we can be more than we are, it is just because I want others to believe it. I want to contribute to circumstances that might make it so.