As happens from time to time, here in New Hampshire we’re in the midst of watching a political scandal unfold. It appears our young majority leader in the state House of Representatives falsified a document, quite elaborately, in order to complete his graduation requirements for law school. Reports tell us of his asking a fellow party member for an internship in his law office, then failing to actually show for the hours and assignments promised. Despite this failure, he documented the clients and cases he “worked on,” and submitted the report to the school. When the hiring attorney discovered that this young man had participated in the graduation ceremony, he started digging, called him out on the internship no-show, and ultimately demanded his resignation. With the facts thus presented and no where to turn, still the majority leader took one more opportunity to blow it, offering a covered over announcement of his decision to step away after one term of service. At this point, with the truth more or less revealed, the sad fellow has resigned his seat immediately and apologized for his conduct, disputing none of the details.
Here’s what I’m curious about: What carries a person through such a lengthy series of ethical lapses? From my count, he had at least 4 obvious chances to step off the liar’s track and get lined up with the truth. He could have called the hiring attorney as soon as he realized he was not going to be able to fulfill the internship. He could have contacted the law school to inform them that he would be shy the necessary credits this internship would have provided. He could have spoken to fellow students and told them he would need another year to complete school. He could have taken the quietly worked out, face-saving resignation offered him right at the end when the facts came clear to the various authorities. What keeps a person clinging to an ideal of himself that doesn’t line up with easily discovered facts? It’s an interesting question, but it brings me to the question I believe is more useful as a Microwave Meditation: how do you know in the moment when you slide off the ethical track?
I consider this from my own history of ethical imperfection. In my work life, I can think of the times when it took me hours, or on a couple of occasions days, to swallow hard, walk into the boss’ office and spit out the truth about my own failure to deliver. Those days were hell, literally. There is a physical and mental distress involved that makes a simple medical ailment pale by comparison. And yet, I clung. In hindsight, I have to call myself lucky. Soon enough I would realize it was time to fess up. I position myself somewhere in the middle of the bell curve on work ethics back then. I had enough decent upbringing and self-interest to keep myself out of serious trouble. These would somehow kick in and rescue me from the worst.
Nowadays, I’m in a lot better shape. I credit a careful meditation practice that has given me much quicker access to my own body and thought data. I know the signals of distress, generally in the moment of temptation to veer off into obfuscation or deflection. Nausea, chest muscle tension, jitters, plus a particular quality and pace of mind activity, scrabbling and anxiously searching for an escape… these are my cues for waking up to an instance of dancing around the truth. Being able to pay attention to these gives me the early chance to stop, get my story straight for myself, and proceed from there. What a gift.
When you are at an ethical fork in the road, how do you know?