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?