by Randall S. Frederick
I found myself between two equally “good” choices – going out with three of my friends, or staying home with the French cinema I picked up from the video store. Yes, they still have video stores!
While I was trying to decide, my mother rang to see how my week had gone. At first, I ducked the question entirely. This is a signature “Randall” thing to do when I am in the middle of thinking something out; I will evade questions where information is given or weighed, as I am still trying to sort it all out for myself. Until I arrive a conclusion for myself, I won’t prematurely give one to you, lest it be proven wrong.
We’ve all been there, caught in an emotional moment for which we later feel guilty. The tirade against the boss who, in the end, changed their mind and showed they weren’t a git after all. The boyfriend who frustrated us so intensely that, if we verbalized it all to someone else, say a friend, they would try to convince us to leave the tosser until he comes along and apologizes. making us regret ever telling our friend about the affair. I process things. Sometimes, rather quickly. My first impressions are rarely wrong. But sometimes it takes a few minutes, or even days until I arrive at “the right thing.”
The right thing. What is that, anymore?
After I hung up with my mother, I started dressing and, still unconvinced about my plans, called her back a half hour later. Without missing a beat, I responded to her Hello? by launching into it. I’m close to my mother, or at least closer to her than I am with my father, and much of my concerns she already knew. After I laid it out, she took a deep breath and said, “Randall, I know you’ll do the right thing.”
Now, this would seem a trivial example. Two equally compelling opportunities with no apparent down sides – to be with friends, or to say in and have a night to myself. But again, what is “the right thing” anymore? Who knows, and how do we arrive at that place of knowing, and doing, and living into it? What is worse, are all other good alternatives the wrong thing, by default? Or what about those instances when the “right” thing isn’t so right after all? We make quick, sometimes rushed a pressured decisions all the time. That box of donuts when we needed a quick sugar-fox have become the box. of. donuts. which are not good at all, but something we will have to work off for the next 48 to 72hrs at the gym. The girl who asks you out, who seems so well put together, reveals herself to be a Pandora in disguise. The small business owner who “gifts” what he owes in back pay to his employees “because it’s the right thing to do.” The editor fired for not revealing his sources. Or, to use a rather broad example, Edward Snowden’s reports on the National Security Agency’s invasive tactics. In any of these, can we distinguish the right thing any more?
I got together with a co-worker last week and before the tea could arrive, she began telling me that she was getting a divorce. The reason? “I’m just trying to do the right thing for me, you know?” The story just… tumbled right out. A kid. Fourteen years of marriage. Poof. Gone. Because she was “trying to do what’s right for me – not him, for once.”
Last year, I was let go from an editorial position. In my personal life, apart from my professional life, I reached out to a former writer to ask advice about how best to help a friend who had been sexually assaulted. I knew she had been victimized as a child and shamed by her faith community for not readily forgiving her attacker. I wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to be a good friend. So I asked advice on how to do that.
Unbeknownst to me, reaching out would trigger latent PTSD in the writer. She filed a complaint to my superiors, alleging that I knowingly used information to “intentionally trigger my trauma just for a story” despite never asking her for a story. This amounted to “questionable behavior within the scope of employ” by the publishers, and I quickly found myself on the wrong end of a gag order with my daily duties suspended. Despite other writers meeting with them and defending me, my character, and the fourteen letters of character reference of professionally “outstanding conduct and efforts to create a high degree of trust with those he works with,” my employers decided to let me go. the line between professional and personal was too blurred for them, and in the last meeting with Human Resources, I was asked if I had anything to add. I could only say, “It amazes me that no one can see I was just trying to do the right thing here.”
Morality and ethics are relative, elusive and tricky, situationally constructed. In each context, ‘the right thing’ changes and can be reasoned, argued, played with, adjusted, modified, or thrown out. And we may still never know whether we made the right choice, or just made the best of a bad situation. I have found, frustratingly, that what is right takes time. A long time. Too much time. In the midst of crises, without any prior experience or a framework within which our circumstances have already been tried, we’re really just wingin’ it.
Working in the helping profession, the question about what is right is a daily thing. Hourly. Sometimes, minute by minute. Many of us live in this kind of tension. And I can say with first-hand experience that it wears on you after a while, often corrupting good intentions. We have a way of focusing so intently on the present circumstances that, before we know it, we’re missing the point entirely. Juggling so many What If’s that, in exhaustion or frustration or even both, we give in. We settle. We find within ourselves some dark and terrible place that turns everything on its side, a desperate part of our psyche which goes after, even ardently pursues, the wrong thing just to feel a reprieve. Whether it is junk food, or marital affairs, or hurting someone just so they can feel the same measure of pain we are feeling, we are always changing. And this is a frighteningly painful tension.
Philippians 1:10 is a weird verse in the writings of Paul. For a man so intent on doing the right thing, of living a sacrificial life, encouraging people of faith to live with spiritual freedom but to live bound up rather than offend someone else, Paul introduces a letter to his friends in Philippi with the hope that their goodness and friendship might help them “discern what is best, to understand what really matters, give their approval & endorsement to the best kinds of things.” The verse, indeed, the entire letter to Philippi, seems more relaxed as if Paul is saying, “It’s a bitch out there. But thank God, there are people like you who are at least trying to figure it out.” In some way, it has an echo of the prophet Elijah from I Kings 19. Elijah has just come away from a spiritual pissing contest – My God is better than your God. Oh yeah? Prove it! – and has also been arguing with the king for weeks. Finally, the queen issues an order to execute him. So. You know. He’s got that going for him now, too.
Exhausted, hungry, and feeling alone, Elijah questions why he is the one who always has to do the right thing. Why aren’t other people at least trying? Beat down, he presses God to do the right thing and take his life. But if Paul echoes Elijah, then Elijah seems to be echoing Abraham, who once argued with God over what the right thing was in consideration of two famous cities in Gen. 18:25. “Far be it from [God] to do the wrong thing! Will the God of What-Is-Right do what is right?” What is more, the Jewish prophets conclude their many essays and theological writings with the precept that, in the end, God wants us to do the right thing by being generous with each other and living with supernatural awareness (Micah 6:8). The right thing is a chief concern of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and even forms a chief consideration of Western society to this day. But indeed, doing what is right is not a new thing in religion. And it’s certainly not exclusive to the Jewish and Christian faiths, or even Western thought.