Be an adult

It’s not difficult to do the right thing. So why don’t we?

Last week I was walking down the street in downtown Minneapolis. About twenty feet ahead of me, also on a walk, was another person. Let’s call him Adam. Very innocuously — and, by all accounts, totally accidentally — an errant piece of paper fell out of Adam’s pocket and onto the sidewalk while he reached inside his jacket.

The scratch paper, crumpled, was clearly meant for the garbage. A meaningless missive? A letter to a love unrequited, angrily scrunched into wrinkled oblivion? An acceptance letter — some sort of good news — digested with confidence, whose recipient was ready to launch ahead and move forward? Who knows! The point is, this thing was destined for the circular filing cabinet.

What happened next was — in my opinion — upsetting. Adam, fully aware of what had transpired, fully knowledgeable that this piece of trash had unwittingly fallen from his pocket, glanced — quickly, in a clipped way — behind him. And then — and then! — Adam kept walking.

He kept walking. Adam! What are you doing?!

It’s a small thing, yes? What’s the big deal? It’s a very easy question to ask. Natural, almost. “Is this guy” — that is to say, me — “really gonna make a federal case out of this?” It’s a single piece of bunched-up paper. Who cares?

But let’s really think about this for a moment.

Now — to be clear — you could easily argue, dear reader, that my conclusion about Adam’s intentions was arrived at in error. It’s possible, I admit. And — as we’ll see momentarily — assuming positive intentionality in others while also acknowledging the ever-present possibility that you could, indeed, be wrong, are two hallmarks of the very adulthood and right behavior to which I am appealing. So, yes — maybe he really, truly didn’t realize what had happened. Ok.

I ask you, though, to stipulate — if I could beg your indulgence — that this man, Adam, indeed accidentally dropped this piece of paper, observed what had happened, and then very intentionally ignored it. That Adam — poor Adam! — left it as a problem for someone else. Join me on this, just for the moment.

If we accept this scenario to be true, we must therefore also believe the following to be true about Adam:

  1. He either: (a) finds Minnesota’s anti-littering statues to be illegitimate; or (b) is comfortable, if caught, with the penalty they impose.
  2. He does not believe he is responsible for disposing of his own garbage.
  3. He takes no issue with passing off the obligation to throw away his own trash (to “pick up after himself,” to use the language of kindergarteners) to someone else who is, in fact, not responsible.
  4. He believes, wholly or in part, that the rules imposed equally on all individuals in society (that is to say, “everyone else”) do not, wholly or in part, apply to him.

Of course, of the four, the last is the most problematic. The sociopathy required to hold this belief is staggering.

But — and here’s the kicker — we’ve, each of us, all held this belief before in some way, shape, or form. This is demonstrably true, and also what makes the idea that “the rules don’t apply to me” — or maybe even “this or that rule in isolation doesn’t apply to me” — so sinister. Our selfish human nature makes it easy to get on board with the notion in those moments it suits us.

But, but, but — we are human beings endowed with the power of choice, and we behave, on the whole, in a way that would tell us to turn around and pick up the piece of paper. This is because of the combination of cultural, philosophical, moral, and ethical systems and incentives we otherwise refer to as “society.”

So — why did Adam make this choice? The easiest answer is, he just didn’t care. That he thought so little about the consequence of his action that it’s questionable to even try to hold him accountable. But, yet…while an easily acceptable answer, something about that doesn’t really satisfy.

There’s some element of broken-window theory here, no doubt. It would tell us that the piece of paper left untouched on the sidewalk is, ultimately, not a small problem.

Imagine, for a moment, how many little instances you experience, witness, or, perhaps, perpetrate yourself (“Who? Me?”) that could easily replace Adam and his paper.

I don’t know Adam. I don’t feel comfortable using this event in isolation to conclude that he’s a rotten human being. We all make mistakes. We’re all selfish at times. And I’d want someone to extend me the benefit of the doubt when it was called for.

That doesn’t dismiss, however, the opportunity to take this as instructive.

I end with a list from John Perry Barlow, American essayist and poet. It was written in 1977, and was entitled “the twenty-five principles of adult behavior.”

We are given so many opportunities throughout our day, every day, to be an adult. To do the right thing.

So let’s just do it.


John Barlow’s 25 Principles of Adult Behavior

1. Be patient. No matter what.

2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of someone you would not say to him.

3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.

4. Expand your sense of the possible.

5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.

6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.

7. Tolerate ambiguity.

8. Laugh at yourself frequently.

9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.

10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.

11. Give up blood sports.

12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.

13. Never lie to anyone for any reason.

14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.

15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.

16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.

17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.

18. Admit your errors freely and soon.

19. Become less suspicious of joy.

20. Understand humility.

21. Remember that love forgives everything.

22. Foster dignity.

23. Live memorably.

24. Love yourself.

25. Endure.

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Nicholas Fitzgerald is the producer and host of ‘Join Me, Won’t You?Subscribe here, anywhere you get your podcasts.