Why do the right thing?

We had a lively and lingering dinner party with a group of friends on the weekend. Over dessert one friend shared a story from his week.

After filling his car with gas, he went into the store to pay. While there, he picked up a few other things that amounted to about $5.00. He paid with his card, left the store and drove away. Hours later, when he looked at the receipt, he realized that the cashier had charged him for the $5.00 items, but not for the gas.

He could have just let it go. But then he thought that maybe the cashier would have to cover the loss. He went back to the gas bar and pointed out the error.

His story prompted another one of my friends to tell us about her “honesty ring.” Decades ago, she came down the escalator at Sears to see lying on the floor in front of her a $100 bill and a $10 bill. Decades ago that was a lot of money. She could have just picked it up and walked on. Instead, she took it to the service desk where they logged it in and told her that if no one claimed it in a certain amount of time, it would be hers. No one claimed it, and she used the money to treat herself to the “honesty ring” she still wears all these decades later.

Another friend at the table told the story of her father finding a paper bag full of thousands of dollars lying on the ground in a parking lot. He turned it into police.

All of these stories reminded me of the time I stopped at an ATM in Mac’s Milk. I walked up to the machine and found $100 sitting in the slot. Someone had withdrawn the money, taken their card and then left without the money. I looked all around the Mac’s Milk, but no one was there. I could have taken the money and run, but I took it to the cashier and handed it in.

All of us at the table that night had a “doing the right thing” story to share. 

We had either lost financially or risked losing financially in these situations, but we had gained in pride and feelings of self-worth. Some of these events had taken place decades ago, but still they resonate good feelings through our lives today. We glowed as we remembered and shared our stories.

We didn’t talk about all the times we didn’t do the right thing.

Guaranteed each of us could pull out stories about times when we made different kinds of decisions. Those resonate through our lives decades later, too, with no-so-good queasy feelings. We’re just not so willing to share those stories.


Doing the right thing: short-term financial loss or risk, long-term feelings of pride and self-worth, and great dinner conversation.

Doing the wrong thing: short-term financial gain, long-term not-so-good queasy feelings, no good stories to share.

Sounds so simple. Why is sometimes so hard?

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