When I was a kid, my mom was always talking about honesty. How it was important to her, how it should be to me. “But you’re a good and honest person!” she’d say, whenever I was discouraged by other people who got ahead by cheating, or cutting corners, or just being rotten (and there are a lot of those people, which is really discouraging). But I did believe her, and as I grew older I also grew to believe in karma: do something wrong, something wrong will be done to you. What comes around, goes around, and all that. I’ve always tried to do the right thing whenever possible, but sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you have to wonder if you’re not just honest, but a sucker. Like what happened to me yesterday.
I was in line at this fancy gourmet food place around here, buying fancy gourmet Christmas gifts. Had a basketful of stuff, doing a bunch of shopping all at once, and I’d been waiting in line forever. When I finally got up to the cashier, she starts ringing me up, and as I’m standing there, idly watching the register, I see that one of my items rang up wrong. Like, it was supposed to be $24, but came up as $4.50. So: that’s a big difference. Huge. And she’s still ringing things up, hasn’t noticed, and I’m just standing there, wondering what I should do, and of course I hear my mother’s voice in my head (“Good honest person! Good honest person!”) and I take a deep breath and say, “I think one of those rang up wrong.” The cashier looks at me, and I can tell by her expression she thinks I mean I was overcharged, so I say, “It was supposed to be more,” and then she looks really surprised and starts scrolling back through. When she finds it, she nods, then keys the right amount in. “Well, thanks for being honest,” she says, and while this should make me feel good, the way she sounds when she says it—surprised, if not incredulous—makes me feel kind of stupid. Like probably NOBODY else would point out that error. So why did I? Because I am a good, honest person? (I’m not, not always.) Because even if I am not, my mother’s voice haunts me, daily? (Maybe.) Because I am worried about holiday karma? (Again, maybe.)
I mean, where’s the line here? Why should it be surprising when you do the right thing? Or was this mistake supposed to be some kind of karmic thing, a gift I should accept just as given? I am sure there are ethics experts who could argue about this for hours. But in the end, I paid my $24 bucks, which I should have felt good about, but instead I felt kind of ridiculous. On the other hand, if there is such a thing as karma—and I believe there is—maybe I’ll see the flip side of this sometime soon. Then again, you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing the right thing, should you?
I do not have answers to these questions. I am just asking.
Maybe I’m just overthinking this. It’s entirely possible: I’ve been working like crazy lately, and I think I’ve been in my own head a bit too much. I’m going to play hooky today, get my hair cut, go to the movies, indulge in some popcorn. Stop thinking about ethics and karma for a little while. Stop thinking, period. Or for a day, anyway.