In this blog, I would like to share a story that I think illustrates moral decision-making, self-confidence, willingness to risk, justice, sacrifice, and honor. When I was about 20, I faced a moral dilemma that was difficult, and not without costs. It stands today stands as one of the things I’m proud of about myself, though. In fact, anytime one prioritizes the principle of right, the choice to act morally, and the willingness to risk on behalf of the right and the good, one is really living well. It’s the stuff parables from Jesus or difficult dialogue with Socrates are about. It makes us the best we can be if we ask ourselves <em>what are we prepared to do?</em> and answer with courage and determination.
Here is my story about moral decision-making. The year was approximately 1994; I was about 20. My parents had divorced in 1990 or so, and the prior years were fairly tough as far as relations with one parent, the other parent’s mental and physical illness, separation from sister, big breakup with my first girlfriend, and my last grandparent dying. One of my parents had moved to a mountain community really pretty far out of the way to “find themselves,” as they put it. It was a way to take half the proceeds from the sale of the house and try to make a go of it. My sister lived with them, and I stayed with the other parent.
As you can maybe sense, this story of moral decision-making is probably best left a bit vague as to the parent that plays the role of antagonist in this story. That parent and I have a much better relationship now, though much of our life together has been fraught with difficulty, anger, substance abuse, and blame. I don’t want to single them out because he or she does sometimes read this blog.
This kind of obscuring of one small fact doesn’t really change the nature of the story. Challenging moral decision-making is about principles, no matter who else likes it, but it would be impolitic and inappropriate to embarrass my mom or dad by being more specific. I can note that this person is no longer an alcoholic and has made a difference in many peoples’ lives. They are, by all accounts, a good person now. This is something that pretty much only I remember about them, but it’s fair to say that it is a small and often-forgotten part of my estimation of them.
So, this parent hired a contractor to take a couple hundred thousand dollars, buy a lot, and build a house. Ideally, this would be a good investment and make my parent’s life easier (and for that of my sister, age 14). They really didn’t have experience spec building a house, and it came with a bit of risk. Ok, quite a bit. In hindsight, this turned out to be a terrible investment, fraught with difficulty. A real bad stroke of luck is forthcoming.
I was looking for something to do that summer, and so I asked my parent if I could come out (about two hours’ drive) and help the contractor as unskilled help. Painting and cleaning up and that kind of thing. So I did. He had a trailer in which I slept for five or six days until the proverbial shit hit the fan.
I should have known that this guy was trouble. His name was Dave. Now, as is typical with contracting, time can be of the essence. Certainly, the fact that I was spending a week up in Big Bear, CA meant that taking a day off wasn’t really in the cards. However, one of us brought up the idea of taking a two-hour drive to Nevada and gambling a bit. Totally unauthorized. I was only making, what, $80 in a day, so if I gambled and lost, it could really put this summer job in jeopardy. I suppose I was complicit in poor moral decision-making, but laboring in the daytime and hanging out pretty much alone in a cheesy camper at night wasn’t really my idea of fun. I wasn’t the kind of guy to go out and spend $50 of my $80 from the day’s wages, either. So, gambling seemed alluring. Well, this gambling foray is probably just a side-issue, really.
The heart of the matter when it came to moral decision-making is the following:
A man named Goran was a skilled laborer Dave probably paid a couple hundred bucks a day to. Typically, it was just the two of them. A real thin operation. I think the financial deal with my parent was a split of the proceeds of the sale, rather pay for services. So Dave had an incentive to take it kind of slow, but do most of it himself or use a skeleton crew. He was a pretty charismatic guy. A tad manipulative, as it were.
Goran was an immigrant from Serbia or someplace like that. He was also a boot-strapper, and brought his two boys with him to the job. They were probably four and five years old, something like that. Cute little guys! I don’t think they spoke great English, and felt kinda like the sons of an immigrant. They were pretty much required to cool their heels in this van conversion Goran drove. As you know, seven to nine hours in the back of a van for kids can really suck. I’m not sure if their mom was out of the picture, or why they had to come to the job site. It was far less than ideal.
I had taught some swim lessons, and was a daycare aide, and had an interest in the field of psychology, so it was natural that I was kinda empathic with these kids. I would have probably preferred to be their sitter than to be doing fairly difficult labor in pretty hot conditions. They kinda tugged on your heartstrings like the way those poor dogs do in the commercials for the SPCA that features that sad song by Sarah McLaughlin, if you know the one I’m thinking of.
Kids will be kids, especially with lax supervision, a strict European immigrant father, and the kinds of pressures Goran apparently faced. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but this tale of moral decision-making is headed south quickly, as you might have guessed.
As you know, moral decision-making and laudable behavior is more challenging when the pressure rises. I imagine that Goran and perhaps Dave were under some stress, perhaps because we had gone gambling the day before and my parent was on them to finish the job successfully and quickly.
So, let me present the denouement of this little morality tale. I was doing my thing, and the kids were out in the van (they were prohibited from leaving). I see why they probably needed to stay there, but it was also a Herculean task for two young boys in hot temps. The back of the van was typically closed, and I can imagine it was an excruciating task to stay in a 4’x6′ space. It was probably only due to Goran’s authoritarian parenting style that it was possible at all. Most kids would have exited and started throwing pine cones a few hours earlier!
Well, here is when time really slowed for me, and the stakes doubled. I saw Goran go over to the van. The cute little guys were probably fighting, and the younger was crying. Goran must have been in some mood, because he lost his shit, as they say. He grabbed an object (which I recall was basically a dowel, maybe 1/2″ thick and three feet long). He lit into his boy with that. It was something to behold! There was anger, there was crying, there was man’s dark side running free and unchecked for a few long seconds.
I must have stared, wide-eyed, heart racing. It was naked brutality. The poor boy, whom I really kind of took to, had his clock cleaned. It was really very disturbing. At least to me, with my sensitivities. I guess I didn’t know what Goran was going through, because it seemed unforgivable. I felt like I saw the face of evil flog an innocent child. That is a rhetorical flourish, but I think I am making myself clear. It was physical child abuse, in my opinion, based on my training and what wisdom I had at the time.
I think Goran said something like “Now you guys need to shut the hell up and quit fighting. If I have to come back here, I am going to tan your hide!” as, unfortunately, my mom used to say.
More than once in my day, my dad took off his belt and gave me some rough justice. One time, probably at age 9 or so, my parent with an alcohol problem beat the living tar out of my 3- or 4-year-old sister with a belt because they were drunk and my sister was crying inconsolably. My grandma was appalled, and knew that a visit from Child Protective Services (CPS) was in our future if my parent left black and blue marks on my sister again. She advised her grown child to thus use a “switch,” a thin, flexible tree branch because it was less likely to leave visible marks and be so over-the-top. I was obviously a bit “charged up” when it came to a parent abusing a child.
I was faced with some tough moral decision-making there in Big Bear, CA in the summer of 1990. I knew my parent wasn’t going to appreciate me involving the Sheriff in this matter, and it would add negative stress to the timeline to get the house ready for sale. Dave was shooting me daggers when I met eyes with him. I really didn’t care what happened to Goran. I believe I spoke with him about it and he didn’t really assuage my shock. I think, though I’m not sure, that I told Dave, and he kind of minimized it, maybe talked about cultural differences or stress or the difficulty of keeping the kids at the job site while the mom was unavailable. Something along those lines. Dave kinda saw it the way I did, but what Dave did or didn’t do escapes my recall. I wasn’t particularly satisfied, though, I know for sure.
I felt that the best decision was to report Goran to the authorities. I felt like the kids were in an untenable situation, and further abuse was likely. It was horrible to witness; to hear the screams. I was driven by my conscience and my judgment to drop the dime on this asshole. And so I did.
I packed up my stuff, because I knew the shit was going to hit the fan for me when I essentially snitched, or threw a wrench in the gears of this inchoate investment. I felt like I had to do what was right, come what may. Such moral decision-making was very difficult, and I knew there would be a cost to me and almost everyone else in this situation. Though I was somewhat scared of my parent, and what fallout would result, I felt like the family was under CPS’s radar, though, and that if I didn’t speak up for the child, who would?
There were no cellphones, so I took my bag and high-tailed it out of there. I went to a payphone and phoned the Sheriff. I reported the incident, and was asked if I would meet the deputy back at the job site. Gulp. I knew Dave would be pissed, and Goran would be livid. I suppose I felt that though they both carried guns in their glove compartments, I probably would be safe. I needed to go on record.
When the Sheriff drove up to where I was waiting, I followed her to the house. The cat came screamin’ out of the bag! I was asked to recount what occurred, and Goran was of course denying it. Dave was looking on with an expression that could be read as, “Jesus Christ, man.” I was taking his skilled laborer who was paid under the table away (if all went according to plan). Indeed, he was arrested. There were visible marks on the child. I think the boys were scared to death, both of their dad and of this Sheriff’s deputy. They were young, and not terribly Americanized.
Well, as expected, this bit of moral decision-making, in which I tried to do the right thing by the boys, was very unpopular with my parent who was building the house. They really didn’t see it as “helping a child,” but more like “doing some hair-brained thing that is typical of me.” They were pissed at me for quite a while. The interruption to the house build caused a further rift in our historically-challenging relationship. I looked down on them for that. I get money problems, and empathize, but I also know that what I did was honorable. I wish there was a third option that day that I thought would work.
That is how my other parent, with whom I lived, felt about it. Their eyes got wide when I recounted the harrowing story. They saw the sacrifice of money on my part, and the fallout with the other parent. He or she saw the courage and the moral fortitude it took to “drop the dime” on Goran directly, and to create stress for Dave and my other parent indirectly. I look back fondly now that the parent who supported me in my decision is dead and gone. It makes me feel wistful. In this scenario, I really only respected my parent who supported me. The one who lambasted me for setting them back a week was really not shining very brightly in my eyes.
Moral decision-making is a very challenging thing at times, either because it is hard to know what to do, or it is hard to do what one knows is right. This incident with Goran will always make me feel good about myself, because I went out of my way to help someone in need, and took some flak for it. Whether CPS made a positive impact on the family in the ensuing years is an eventuality I will never know.
This is partly due to the fact that Dave screwed my parent and engendered a construction defect lawsuit that was horribly stressful and financially disastrous for them. He must have gone to gamble in Nevada a few more times! Dave was thought of as a weasel, a fraud, based on that lawsuit. He is not in the picture and can’t report what he knew of the Goran situation. I assume that I played some role in that twist of fate, though, because I bet Dave cut some corners after losing his pocket carpenter.
My guiding light in this situation was taking responsibility for a child who was stuck in a horrible situation. I did for him what, at times in my life, I would have wanted an adult to do for me. Or at least, what I would have wanted an adult to do for me if I were in such a precarious situation. I suppose I do not regret my decision, though I am clear that sometimes, moral decision-making is only for the stout of heart because dilemmas, by their very nature, exact a toll on the moral agent. It’s just how life is. We have to ask ourselves where our priorities lie, what we really value, and what we’re made of.
I recall a scene in the wonderful Brian DePalma film, The Untouchables. As you may know, it’s the story of the man who put Al Capone away, Elliot Ness, and his loyal companion named Malone, a tough old Irish cop played by Sean Connery. When Ness was angry in one scene, hell-bent on bringing Capone down, Malone – who had been around the block a few times – asked him, with utter focus and gravitas, “What are you prepared to do?” Ness gave an answer that struck Malone as glib, and Malone impressed upon him the pivotal and crucial importance of the question. Taking on Capone was a death-match, and only the best would cut it. What are you prepared to do?, he asks.
If you can deal with a 15-second commercial, this 45-second clip of this very scene on YouTube is awesome. It gives me the chills. Neither Connery or Kevin Costner have ever been better than they were in this fantastic film.
Check out this poem if you are so inclined: “The Truly Noble Man”