Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

Yesterday I had one of those moments that would have caused a Catholic school nun to pull me by the ear or a priest to demand a dozen Hail Marys. I faced a moral curve ball, swung lamely and missed.

It was just a venial sin, but it happened in front of someone who deserved a better example. So like all good (albeit lapsed) Catholics, I’m confessing it — and looking not for sympathy, but a conversation with those of who who’ve faced similar dilemmas.

So here is what happened. I took our 16-year-old German exchange student, Antonia, to our local mall to shop for a dress for her swim team banquet Sunday. She decided she wanted to poke around the shops by herself so we parted ways and she headed for Forever 21, the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous. We met up an hour later.

On our way back to the car Antonia talked excitedly about her bargains, which didn’t surprise me at first because Forever 21 is known for their $7 jeans and $5.50 tops, prices unseen since my E.J. Korvette’s days in the 1960s. Three items – a flowered dress, yellow cardigan and jeans – cost Antonia just $17. We quickly came to the conclusion that this must be a mistake; a check of the receipt confirmed this. The sales clerk had forgotten to add the dress to the tally. The bill would have been twice as high without the mistake.

Antonia had spent her own scarce money on this, so part of her was glad. I could sense, though, that it was nagging her a little bit. It was nagging me too. The right thing to do would have been to return immediately to Forever 21, point out the mistake and offer to pay for the dress. But we were in a hurry to get home because we had dinner to make and things to do that evening, so I used that excuse for taking the easy way out. I’m sure the markup on their clothes is big enough that they won’t care, I told myself. Maybe there was a sale that we didn’t know about. And hey, how many times does a mistake in your favor get made? How many mistakes have you missed that were not in your favor? We packed our shopping bags and our guilt in the back seat and tried not to think about it.

On the way home we talked about the cheap labor that must make the clothing sold at Forever 21, and whether their minions at the sewing machines earn a living wage. Antonia said when she got older and had more money she’d gladly spend more on garments made by better-paid workers. I told her that she was young and didn’t have much money, and not to think about that yet…and that even higher-priced clothing sometimes did not come with a guarantee that the workers were better compensated.

But while we talked passionately about the issue of fairly treated workers, we danced around the moral dilemma of the innocently purloined dress. Antonia noted that the clerk at Forever 21 had remarked that the dress was a hot seller; so surely he should have noticed it as he rang her up, we both agreed. I can’t remember everything that I said about the matter, except that it was pretty lame. It would have been better for Antonia if I had demanded that we turn around and pay what we really owed, even if it meant dinner would be late. But I didn’t.

Now don’t get the idea that I make a habit of stiffing people. Many times, Bob and I have pointed out mistakes that were in our favor; we didn’t want a waiter to make up the difference out of his own money or the store clerk to get a lashing from the manager when accounts were tallied at the end of the day.

But sometimes doing the right thing is a pain in the ass, especially when it is inconvenient, like yesterday. And other times, sad to say, it is not your first instinct. Like the time 17 years ago when I was  out shopping with my children, Rachel and Ryan (then 11 and 8), and we parked head-in right next to a brand new Toyota that was parked head-out. One of the kids opened the back door right into the Toyota’s left headlight, smashing it to pieces. The first words out of my mouth were — in front of the kids — “Maybe we should move the car.”

Five minutes later, our shopping already underway, I turned to the kids and said, “You know, this isn’t right. We really need to write a note to the owner of that other car.” So we returned to the scene of the crime and did just that. When we got home I researched the cost of a genuine Toyota headlight and discovered to my dismay that it would be about $230 plus labor. Fortunately the Toyota owner, who called that night, was grateful, gracious and practical. She had her local mechanic do the job and it cost just $60. So it was a cheap lesson to learn.

Still, I felt guilty that I talked about moving the car in front of Rachel and Ryan. But now, 17 years later, I look at it another way: when you are scared or rushed the right thing isn’t as clear-cut as the Baltimore Catechism would have you believe. Is it OK for kids to see their parents struggle out loud with a moral decision and be seriously tempted to take advantage of a situation when the odds are in their favor? I think it is. It shows that we are human, doing our best when things are not always black and white.

So that is why, despite having many other things to do, today Antonia and I will do what it would have been far less time-consuming to do yesterday: we will head back to the mall with our sales receipt and the tag from the dress, and settle up with Forever 21.

Sometimes when we’re facing a moral curve ball, we swing and miss before we connect. Have any of you ever felt this way?

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13 thoughts on “Those Pesky Moral Curve Balls

  1. ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL!!! Doing the right thing sometimes takes a moment…

  2. Such a tough call, and my thinking is you handled this exactly right. A hassle, yes, but you can’t put a price tag on the lesson in personal character you just taught. It will last a lot longer than the dress. (That said, if it were, say, a small bag of fries that had been omitted, I think I would have just eaten them and called it a day.)

  3. Yes, been there and done that and then happy I did, like you the right thing.

  4. Another thought: A friend of mine has a blog called my-moral-compass.com, in which he takes events of world history and gives a “moral report card” on what transpired…. it’s a cool, interactive site in which visitors can participate. Thought you and your readers might be interested. I love these “values clarification” kinds of exercises!

  5. Good to know, Jennifer! Will make sure to visit.

  6. Cathy, you did the right thing. In the end, it’s always about the right thing to do. And, setting a good example for a younger generation. About the car issue, I’ve had that happen … I left a note and the person did not call me back. But, I felt good about doing the right thing. And I didn’t have any more thoughts about it.

    • Thanks, Sue! I ended up calling Forever 21 and explaining the situation — giving them the receipt number and the item number for the dress. They said a manager would call me back. Nothing yet but my conscious is clear now.

  7. You listened to the Light of Christ within you. Sometimes it’s not convenient to listen and obey, but it is always worth it. The more we still that moral voice the quieter it becomes until we can no longer hear it. Sad state to be in! Kudos for sharing a difficult moment with us.

  8. Here’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    Several years ago, a few days before Christmas, I found a twenty dollar bill lying in the parking lot next to the local grocery store. Someone had failed to put it their pocket when leaving, got in their car and drove away. I was in the free and clear to take the 20 bucks but the Salvation Army guy was clanging away and the twenty bucks ended up in the pot.

    High moral standards? Not really.
    For twenty bucks, it was a no brainer.
    For twenty million, see you in Monaco.

  9. So it seems that the Catholic “education” served you well in the long run! I had a similar experience once when I was charged $1.99 for something marked $19.99. I immediately pointed it out to the clerk, who told me she couldn’t make the adjustment and sent me to customer service (which was right by the exit) who looked it up and confirmed that I had just got a GREAT deal! Now everytime I use that roaster, I smile rather than feel ahamed of the choice.

    I, too, went to Catholic schools, and for all the criticisms I hear, I can tell you 3 times as many good stories. Our society would be well served if more people had been taught to stop and think and to take responsibility for their choices! Guilt is not the private possession of the Catholic tradition and character lies in doing what is right and being honest even if it disadvantages us.

    Your story would have been better without the unnecessary bashing.

  10. I was raised Catholic, too, and like you, was constantly comparing myself to human-gods who had the ability to behave flawlessly. But we’re human-humans, and we don’t always head directly for the morally correct decision. I think it was probably good for Rachel, Ryan, and Antonia to witness your internal struggles.

    By the way, I loved this “…the fashion mecca for the young, broke and fabulous.” I also wonder how many other readers had ever heard of E.J. Korvette’s. We had one a couple of miles away, and went there at least once a week.

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