Discover more from The Anchor & The Waves
Why We Fear Doing the Right Thing
Evil has a way of taking anything short of the hardest “no” as “yes”. Evil people aren’t interested in your consent. For them, lack of resistance will do.
Thus, do many of us find ourselves in terrible situations though we did not pursue them. We look up to find that because we failed to resist the path others cut, we wandered closer and closer to destruction.
It’s easy to do.
A scene from early in season three of "Breaking Bad” captures what I mean. Skyler White discovers that her husband Walter has been manufacturing crystal meth. She moves to divorce him and demands he leave home. He does so temporarily, but returns a few days later against his wife’s wishes.
In an attempt to push him back out, Skyler threatens to call the police and to tell them everything. Walt tells her to do what she feels she must. She calls. The police arrive but can find no legal basis for forcing Walt back onto the streets.
An officer quizzing Skyler about Walt’s behavior asks if she knows of any laws he has broken that might give them grounds to remove him. Skyler hesitates, considers her newborn daughter and the son who idolizes his father but blames her for the tension between his parents.
In a pivotal moment, she decides not to tell what she knows, decides not to step off the path. By maintaining her silence, she sets herself on a course that will lead her to ever greater involvement in the drug trade, an outcome she did not want and would not have chosen had she not been forced into a set of circumstances others created.
The scene illustrates important truths about human nature and the reasons social situations develop in a particular moral direction.
Most of us think we fear evil and love good. The truth is, we fear good too, at least we fear the consequences of doing the right thing. Skyler kept her mouth shut about Walt’s crimes because she feared revealing his actions to the law would have many costly and disruptive short term consequences.
She thought this because it’s true. Telling the truth in that moment would have torn her family apart. Walt would have been arrested, Walter Jr. would have been furious, and Skyler would have been left alone to raise a newborn on a part-time book keeper’s salary. For all she knew, someone from the drug trade may have had her or her children killed. Skyler makes the decision she does because like most of us, she fears that doing good will unleash evil.
And so, she made herself an accessory to her husband’s crimes, to his evil, a choice that ultimately leads to the worst imaginable outcomes including her husband’s death.
That’s the way it goes. Moral decisions carry moral consequences. The hard part is that choosing to be carried along by negative or immoral circumstances often has immediate consequences that feel good, while doing the right thing often involves immediate costs. By going along, we gain some pleasure or we avoid some threat. We might feel relieved, empowered or safe when we go with the flow, headed though it is toward hell.
At such moments, our integrity seems a less weighty thing than not losing a friend, a job or a spouse. And so, we go along to get along, We make every effort to keep our circumstances stable and our selves safe, at least on a surface level.
Under the surface a greater danger lurks. Our sense of safety in such situations is illusory. We have gone from the domain of the minor threat of external suffering to the domain of the major threat of losing our integrity. Compromise that for the approval of the crowd, and we are lost, even if it takes us a while to discover the fact. All we hoped to preserve by our silence, will soon be swept away too.
Jesus makes this point in the New Testament when he asks what it profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
The answer is obvious. It profits him nothing.
Put so starkly, the answer may sound odd. Perhaps, it is hard to believe that our souls can be put at stake by a single decision to remain silent, to comply, to preserve the status quo in the face of the good which threatens to disrupt it. Like many things that sound odd, this one too is true.
We may not lose our souls fully at the first moment of silence, but it will fracture. We will create a painful fissure in our integrity, in our view of ourselves. We must then acknowledge the pain or suppress it. If we acknowledge it, we must do what we can to repair the damage. If we suppress it, we must numb ourselves and thus make ourselves vulnerable to further fracturing.
The solution is to be very careful then how you live, to resolve before the moment of testing to do what is right, to make a plan to keep your soul whole no matter what the short term costs might be. Because in the long run, this is how you win. Even if you lose everything but your own clean conscience, you will still have laid hold of the whole world.