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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Doing the right thing vs. doing things right

"Doing more things right is no substitute for doing the right thing." Stephen R. Covey

Ask yourself the following questions:

* is there a difference between doing the "right thing" and doing things right?
* what is the right thing?
* how will you know if you are doing the right thing?

Here are my responses to the above.

The simplest response to the first question is that is that performance of the latter carries no moral weight.

Many people seek excellence in the sense that they attempt to perfect mechanics: they try to be the "best" at technical performance. An example would be the fireman who learns everything he can about the mechanics of fire and the precise application of water as a means of stopping it. Another example could be a lawyer who has memorized all the rules of civil procedures in the courts in her jurisdiction. Or perhaps the karateka who spends endless hours practicing the "perfect" kick.

All of these are admirable in their way. They represent countless hours in pursuit of a goal, a focus on the ultimately unattainable, and a drive for achievement. However, the fireman who knows everything about fire may not care whether he saves a life. The lawyer may run rings around opposing counsel in a court of law, but use her skills to circumvent instead of to serve justice. And the karateka may use the "perfect" kick to terrorize the innocent or to promote himself instead of serving others.

There are countless examples in our daily lives of people who seek to justify or rationalize their own moral or ethical failures by accruing a list of good acts: the adulterer who prides himself on going to church faithfully; the person who thinks nothing of avoiding payment of taxes because, after all, he gives to the poor; the businessman who bills too much for his services because, after all, his employees depend on him for their livelihoods. All of these people act as though it were somehow possible to cancel out one thing with another. It is not: moral rectitude does not allow for deviation or for barter. Right is right, and each individual act that we engage in is an act that must be judged against itself, not against the other acts that have been engaged in in the past or that may be acted out in the future.

This, then, leads to the answer to our next question: what IS the right thing? The right thing is the thing that can be judged of its own merits, as though in a vacuum, and yet will also ALWAYS add to the accrued integrity of the person who is doing that thing. The right thing is the right thing both now AND in the long run; the right thing both in and of itself AND when judged in conjunction with the entirety of the human life performing that act. Doing things right is no substitute for doing the right thing because one may do many things right, but still fail to improve his existence as a result of those things. Will learning how to kick "right" improve my existence and the existence of others when it is done without an eye to protection of the helpless, to defense of the weak?

And, along with this answer we find ourselves moving inexorably to the last answer: how will you know if you are doing the right thing? Sadly, none of us is gifted with omniscience or with the ability to see the end of time from the beginning. All of us are mortal beings, with finite mentalities and limited perceptions. So knowing what IS the right thing involves a measure of careful thought, of contemplation, and, in the end, some amount of simple faith. As we take our steps through life, we must examine them carefully to see what their true effect will be on those around us, on the communities we are a part of. Will our actions hurt or help? Will they raise up or tear down? We must not only be present in this earth, but AWARE of what it is to be present; to be a thread in the vast interlocking tapestry of life. We are but small weaves in that tapestry, and perhaps can never see what kind of changes our actions will make in the overall patterns, but we can observe those around us, and see what results our actions cause them. Then, as we progress in maturity, we can extrapolate probable results to future actions, allowing us to further perfect our ability to do "the right thing."

Again, however, there is also a place for faith. We all have faith in one thing or another; indeed, no one does ANYTHING without exercising faith. Would we ever tip a pitcher without first believing that water would flow from it? Would we ever plant a seed without believing that it would grow in its season? True, these kinds of faith are often based on repeated experience: I have poured water hundreds of times, and it would be unreason to believe that this time the water will NOT be poured. Nonetheless, that first time, that first experience, we always move forward with faith, not knowing of ourselves, but rather hoping for the best: hoping that what we do will turn out right; will yield a good fruit.

So it is with doing the "right thing": we learn, we grow, we observe the effects our actions have on others and we (hopefully) make changes to ever improve our mark on the world around us. And then, when the ripple of our actions has passed beyond the range of our limited sight, we hope, we perhaps pray, and we exercise our faith that we have done "the right thing."

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