It is human nature to try to turn every situation to our own advantage, and to find the easiest way through it. This is not a bad thing. It’s why we have engineers and explorers and artists. They are the ones who see the world a little differently from everyone else, who try to use the laws of nature (or perception) to make things easier. They are why we have washing machines and Internet and musical instruments. Because while we don’t have the power to alter the laws of nature (yet), we can always find better ways to live by them.
But that’s not the only way we use our ingenuity. We also like to cheat.
It’s ingrained. I remember when I was in school, whether elementary or college, how at the beginning of the year, we’d be given the rules, and almost the first thing through my head was “how much can I get away with?” Not malevolently, really. I didn’t like being in trouble, ever, and so took note on what would earn my grades, and where I could get away with skating – getting the biggest bang for my buck. And we all do it. There are organizations out there devoted to buying things as cheaply as possible, piling up coupons and store specials and clearances. There are people who spend their whole lives figuring out ways to game the system – be it government welfare, or the legal system, or the company hierarchy. There’s cheats in making things, and in repairing things. There are bypasses and make-dos and tricks of the trades. Everywhere.
And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes we’re using the system as it was designed, that it really is just easier. I mean, the whole universe isn’t out to get us. But there are other times, other situations where it’s not like that. We think, oh, what’s it gonna matter? It’s only a little dishonest, right? It’d be the same either way, right? It’s not really “taking advantage” of someone’s good will, or a loophole – doing things out of order doesn’t change the fact that we get there in the end, right? Sure, so-and-so will be mad for awhile; sure, it’s not quite true; okay, so some people get upset over things like that…
Last week, our group of geek girls started watching Boston Legal. And I’m fascinated. Because our lead characters are blatantly amoral. Their idea of right and wrong is pretty far removed from mine. Yet there’s one thing this show does that very, very few other shows do, and that’s that it shows consequences. That sometimes, the wrong guy wins in spite of his obvious wrongness because someone else cheated. They did things out of order, they stretched the rules too far, they deceived someone, and it destroyed their case. Or sometimes the “right” side wins, but the things they do to win cause other problems, mess up relationships, tear down someone’s self-worth, otherwise cause ruin. And perhaps “justice was served” from a legal point of view, but the legal point of view is not what people live. The legalities were right, the realities are a mess. These wrong moves, these indiscretions, these cheats make a great deal more trouble than they solve.
That’ll draw anybody up short. When I’m tempted to cheat, it’s usually because “it’ll be faster/easier/simpler and nobody will notice.” Yeah, should I be so sure? The “right” way might take longer, might mean more work, might even hurt, but it’ll hold up better. It’ll last.
The original definition of the word “integrity” is “having no physical faults”. The Latin word often referred to pottery, and a lack of cracks. You’d want to know that about a pot. Leaking is not good, neither is shattering, and only pottery with very, very good integrity can withstand things like ovens – or microwaves. Making a pot without cracks takes time and effort and a good deal of knowhow about what happens when clay is fired. But it’s the difference between having a pot that’s useless for anything except looking pretty, and one that’ll be cooking meals beautifully for the rest of your life.
Because there are consequences. The consequence of a bubble in the clay is shards and spilled soup all over the floor. The consequences of a cheat can be a mess much, much larger than the bit of work or pain we were avoiding.
Now, okay, there’s a great many messes in the world that are not our fault. And even when they are, when you are right in the middle of a grand one, it is better to focus on “how do I fix this?” than to dwell on the cheat that got you there. But to know that cheats lead to such ends should always be in our minds. When we stand at the choice of one way or another, whatever that choice may be, we’ve got to remember. We’ve got to know that there are consequences we never see. We’ve got to know that there are circumstances we don’t know about. You’d think it be obvious by now that pretty much nothing ever goes according to plan, and that’s when cheats fail. They don’t take the pressure – that’s why they’re cheats. The word not said, the route not taken, the law not followed, the love not honored – we might’ve needed them. And now we’ve gotten stuck.
This is hope: that we can have the wisdom to choose well. And this is also hope, that whatever cheat we’ve taken, whatever mess we’re in, it can be repaired. We’re not pots – or we’re not fired ones, anyway. Integrity isn’t set, but neither is the lack of it. Sometimes you have to squash the whole thing back down into a lump again and start over, but you can start over. The cheat can be addressed, the mess can be put back together. And then you can have a whole pot, a useful and beautiful pot, without the fear of breaking. Which was the whole point in the first place.
Terry Pratchett has said that the rules exist in order to make us to think twice. And y’know, I get the idea that most of the time, we don’t even think once. Maybe because thinking twice might mean that we decide not to break them. That we might see the potential consequences as being worse. We see the pretty, shiny advantage of the cheat is right here, obvious, in front of us, while the value of the rule takes longer. But longer comes, either way. And in the end, it was our choice.