Tuesday, May 10, 2011



I got one of my first real lessons in honesty back when I was about 13. I took over a neighborhood paper route and spent maybe a week or so learning the route from the kid who was giving it up. Then came the first day I was to deliver it myself. Since I wasn't sure I knew all the houses to deliver to by heart, I decided to go by the kid's "route book" - that's the book with little stubs in it that paperboys used to go around each week and collect. Well, wouldn't you know it, at least a third of the houses I remembered delivering to while learning the route, weren't in the route book. What this meant was that the paperboy before me had been mistakenly delivering papers to a lot of houses which had not been paying. Afterwards, I called the manager at the paper and told him about this. The manager said I should only deliver papers to the people in the route book. If there had been some mix up, anybody on the route who stopped getting a paper would surely call and let us know.

Well, nobody called. Repeat, Nobody.

Now back then, paperboys didn't make a lot of money. You got up around 5 in the morning, picked up your papers at a local drop off (mine was the fire station), banded them, put them in your paper bag and took them around. Each week you had to go around and spend another afternoon collecting. In the end, you made maybe 20 bucks a week for a good 30 hours worth of work. Like I said, not a lot of money, but not bad either for a 13 year old kid - especially with the minimum wage at below $2.00 an hour.

Anyway, it turned out that the poor kid who had the route before me was essentially paying by himself for all the papers those customers were getting who weren't paying. Now this wasn't some kind of down and out neighborhood either. Most of the people who lived on the route had good jobs and surely enough money to pay the measly 3 or 4 bucks a week for a newspaper delivered right to their front porch. You had to figure that at some point the kid had just lost their billing cards and and thoughtlessly kept delivering papers to them. Probably they were otherwise good people - went to church, obeyed the laws, said please and thank you, the whole bit. But for some reason, when they started getting a paper they knew they weren't paying for, not one of them called the office and arranged to make payment. Not one! All of them were perfectly happy with getting a free newspaper and letting some poor 13 year old kid pay for it.

It may not sound like much, but this taught me a great deal about honesty. One other example:

Once, while walking down the side-walk with my mother in Indianapolis, Mom looked down and spotted a 20 dollar bill. She picked it up, thought for a second, then went into the nearest store, handed the 20 to the clerk and told him to hang on to it in case the person who lost it should come back looking for it. Imagine that! Steve, there wasn't any way in Hell that 20 would ever get back to who ever lost it. But you know, Mom didn't care. All she knew was that it wasn't her money, and any effort to get it back to its rightful owner, no matter how futile, was preferable to keeping it.

Mom wouldn't have gone for two seconds without paying for a newspaper. Neither would Dad. If we got a paper delivered to us without paying, my parents would have tracked the paperboy down and made sure he got paid. That's the kind of family I grew up in. But sometimes I wonder how many families like mine there really are. If my experience with the paper route was any indication - probably not many.

I like to think of honesty as one of the ultimate acts of instinctive selfishness. Really, really honest people got to be that way because they just can't deal with how dishonesty makes them feel. All their lives, they will always, in every instance, chose to be honest when the choice to be dishonest would benefit them more - and never be known by anyone other than themselves. They don't require the threat of laws or law enforcement to goad them into making these choices. Even in a lawless world, where honesty is considered stupid and useless, they would still be honest.

I'm like that and I think you are too. If you're anything like me, you've made more than your share of mistakes. As a matter of fact, if you're anything like me, you've never done anything right that you didn't do wrong at least once before. But you know, honesty has nothing to do with right or wrong answers, but how you go about getting them.



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