Look Closer — Values
“Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is right and what is easy.” Albus Dumbledore, from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
Once upon a time, a lawyer struggling with the challenges of mid-life was consumed by a larger law firm. Suddenly this man found himself employed by a firm he had gone against many times in court, because in his prior practice he had represented individuals, and his new firm had often represented the insurance companies being sued by this lawyer’s individual clients.
This man had two children in school, and he dreamed of sending them to college. He still had law school debt. This man had recently taken on a new mortgage, because he had no reason to expect any change in his income stream for the foreseeable future. Yet change was thrust upon him and all his plans.
This lawyer did not consider his new law firm to be unethical or immoral. The new firm adhered to the standards of the regulatory authorities and honored the word of the law. The problem was values; the lawyer’s personal values encouraged him to take the side of the individual, but the new firm’s business was much more oriented to representing the interests of large businesses.
Thus this lawyer left the firm that had acquired his practice. He accepted the risk to his children’s college funds, his mortgage payments, his dreams of a comfortable retirement. He took on the responsibility of paying his family’s health insurance. He had no promise of any future income, except the theoretical value of his intelligence, degree, and resume. He had his core values to direct his choices. And thankfully, he had a couple other lawyers who had been cast into the same boat by the acquisition. These three lawyers banded together and started their own firm, built around their own professional values and focused on representing the interests of potentially wronged individuals.
Where did the lawyer’s values come from? Family first I would think, with the values instilled by his parents, older siblings, and grandparents. Possibly the church he was raised in; religion at its best can provide a moral foundation for our lives and values sprout from morals. Professional mentors also played a role, from the early days in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to the next step in private practice, working too many hours and wading deep into legal, moral, and value complexities every day.
All of this experience, influence, and modeling came together in a decision to step away from a job that offered financial stability and continuity, and did not ask the lawyer to do anything actually illegal.
According to the story I heard, this lawyer is known as a truly honest man. Honesty is a value I hold high as well, because my parents modeled and expected honesty, and their parents did as well. I am a deeply flawed individual, though, the same as all of you. I have been known to equivocate, dissemble, re-direct, obfuscate, or if truly cornered, retreat into the phrase “I have no knowledge of such events, and if I did have knowledge of such events I would not be disposed to discuss them at this time,” all to keep someone else from learning the full truth. I strive to be honest, but I don’t always succeed. I imagine this honest lawyer was flawed, as I am.
Yet when it really matters, I expect this lawyer will tell the truth, and I strive to do the same. Yes, I broke your grandmother’s serving dish. No, there’s nothing else we can do, the judge is going to rule for the insurance company. Yes, I backed over your driveway lights. I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the cherry tree. The moral foundation, held together by values and overseen by conscience, urges most of us deeply flawed individuals to do the right thing.
Now people draw their value lines in different places. I am remembering a scene from “The Sopranos” where Tony is explaining to his crew that they do what they do to put food on the table and provide for their families. So provide for the family is an honorable value, but theft, violence, philandering, and murder remained within his acceptable bounds. And yes, Tony Soprano is a television character, but how many tobacco executives stood up and said our product is not bad for you? How many chemical companies stood up and said DDT does not harm the environment? I cannot forget a picture and a quote I read in the paper once from a mining executive, with a picture of a mountaintop denuded by strip mining. He said he was Christian, and the Bible taught him about saving souls, not saving the earth. One man’s good Christian is another man’s land raper; it’s all about the values.
Now we would all do well to aim for the seven theological virtues: chastity; temperance; charity; diligence; patience; kindness; and humility. I may be a little weak on temperance and diligence but I feel good about my patience and kindness. It’s like Jules says near the end of “Pulp Fiction,” “But I’m trying, Ringo, I’m trying real hard.”
Tell me, though, are we seeing more theological virtue, or more of the seven deadly sins — pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wraith, and sloth — in our beloved nation today?
Many times our heroes spring forth from humble origins, and they live their values with every action. I am thinking of Harry Potter, forced to live beneath the stairs and given every opportunity to stray from his path. Luke Skywalker, the humble young farmer, who chooses to look for good in his mass murderer of a father. For America, and back in reality, we can look to Honest Abe Lincoln, born in a one-room cabin and entirely self-educated, who rose to the top of our presidential pantheon on his intellect and his values. Perhaps most of all, many Americans look to Jesus, the humble carpenter, savior of the downtrodden, and raised by an itinerant laborer.
Sometimes our heroes are not so humble, and they do equivocate, like George Washington, born of colonial aristocracy and, along with most of the founding fathers, side-stepping the hard reality that slavery and disenfranchisement of women did not jibe with the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Washington remains a hero, though, and a man of values, and we know he was trying, he was trying real hard.
My story of the lawyer came back to me recently because I have been seeing news articles about people with values that provide a little bit of light amidst these dark times. Beneath the page 1 articles about those with the most power and the least values, one can sometimes find evidence of public servants who are standing up and saying no, this is wrong, and I can’t do much, but I can do this. I imagine beneath these few articles are hundreds if not thousands of other civil servants who are now faced with little choices that suddenly loom large, and their conscience and foundation of values have moved to the forefront of their minds… or not.
If I am going to look closer and find hope, it will be in those who choose charity rather than greed, kindness over wrath, humility over pride, and perhaps most of all these days, honesty over lies. Our heroes now will be those who stand up in front of a dissenting chorus and state: “No, this is what really happened.” “No, this is really how this law would affect people.” “No, that is a violation of our ethical standards.” “No, I cannot be an enabler any longer.” Like our lawyer at the beginning of this story, our heroes will be those who speak up for the individual, arrayed against the power of big businesses and the state itself.
A million little moments of standing by our values may just save us all. And no matter what, we have to keep trying, trying real hard.
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” George Washington, from his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation