Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Nightly Note

Moral Compass. It's a phrase we hear fairly frequently and it's an interesting subject.

As a child growing up my favorite book was Damien, by Hermann Hesse. Hesse for those of you who don't know is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of early 20th century literately classics such as Siddhartha, and Steppenwolf.

While Damien didn't get the critical acclaim that was bestowed upon some of Hesse's better known works, it's an incredible novel and absolutely perfect for the young adolescent male trying to find his way through the world he is being so rudely introduced to.

The major themes from the novel are those of duality (male/female, good/evil, etc...) and thoughts on divinity (what is God?). But like any great writer, Hesse manages to pack far more into the novel than that. He also touches on some of the ideas which are close not only to the heart of a 13 year old boy, but to that of anyone. Hesse tackles the struggles we face each day trying to determine right from wrong, especially when that definition gets stretched in uncomfortable manners for which our upbringing has not prepared us.

The book is, in many ways, a lesson in accepting the gray areas of our lives and learning that eventually there comes a point when we have to break from the lessons of our parents and mentors and find our way forward through that murkiness. These aren't necessarily startling concepts for an adult, but for a child the notion that the adults who guide our lives may not always be right can be an incredible realization. A painful one too. His work beautifully captures that rapture and spells it out in his own mesmerizing way.

I'm an adult now but that one novel still stands out far above and beyond anything else I've ever read, and it still holds incredibly deep meaning for me.

The past couple days a friend of mine, someone who I hold in extremely high esteem was challenged by his own moral dilemma. To properly tell this story however, I must first make some unflattering admissions. For those who know me personally, none of this will come as a shock, but I have a lot of character flaws. I've lied, I've cheated on girl friends, I've stolen, spoken ill of many to their faces and behind their backs, I curse - a lot. I have no qualms with hitting someone if I feel it's warranted, and if the situation was such that I felt it was necessary, I could justify a lot worse.

When it comes to morals, I'm not exactly societies ideal.

My friend on the other hand, is. He's been kind, loyal, faithful, and totally honest, even with his emotions. He's not afraid to let you see him cry. He doesn't curse, smoke, or drink. He remembers his friends and mentors youth on the ways of God. He volunteers. He's engaging, intelligent, and incredibly thoughtful.

He is almost certainly the best person I know.

He is also, in many ways, the exact opposite of me.

So it surprised me when I received a call from him yesterday and his question was about a moral dilemma. First, some background.

My friend had recently sold his old car to someone who had found his ad online. Then, a couple days later, the man came back saying that he had taken the car in to have it inspected and the mechanics had found problems that needed to be repaired.

Now the car was old and had something like 180,000 miles on it, so the fact that repairs were needed wasn't something that should've come as a surprise. Furthermore, the gentleman who purchased the vehicle should've had the good sense to have the car inspected before buying it. This much I think is obvious to anyone.

When my friend sold the vehicle, he did so in good faith. There was no attempt to hide any problems or to mislead the buyer. Still, when presented with the problems my friend I think intrinsically realized he was in a moral quandary, even if he himself couldn't describe it that way. He immediately began calling trusted friends, and one after another the people - all of whom are undoubtedly better human beings than myself - told him that the onus was on the buyer and that he should not refund his money and take the vehicle back.

Then he came to me.

We discussed the problem at length for maybe half an hour, probably more like 45 minutes. We laid out the problems, weighed the pros and cons, and then it came time for me to give my final opinion. I explained to him that I didn't want to tell him what he should do, but that I knew what I would do. I was hoping not to give my actual answer because I'm a firm believer that when presented with all the facts, it's best to let someone be guided by their own moral compass to their own conclusion without trying to influence them by telling them what you would do.

Upon hearing me say that I knew what I would do, my friend immediately, and with dismay in his voice, said something to the effect of, "yeah, you'd tell him he was stuck with the car..."

"No," I said, "I'd give him the money back."

I could hear his voice perk up, the better angles of his nature making themselves apparent once again, and I could feel how surprised he was in his response. It was almost as if he had called others and was waiting or someone, anyone, to say this. I could feel relief in his voice. Finally he had found someone who might have sympathy for the person who had made a car buying mistake that would cost them a few thousand dollars. It must've been doubly surprising that the someone was me.

I'm the same person who has committed one grievous offense after another throughout my life, wronging those who I loved the most. Those who loved me.

My friend of course, didn't heed my advice. The next day the situation would get worse, than man discovered some fine print in the ad which ran counter to the claims made by his mechanic. Now he wants to take my friend to small-claims court over the matter. In short, it's gotten ugly. Now my friend finds it probably more prudent to simply return the money and start again.

As it was with the sinner on the cross next to Jesus, we can debate whether my friends change of heart was a matter of a redirected moral compass or simply a matter of convenience.

I think my point of all of that was to say this: a moral compass is a weird thing. There are those, like my friend, for whom morality seems to come easy. A world of black and white where little ambiguity exists. And then there are others like me who can find justification for just about anything in certain circumstances.

For those who live in a world of the perpetual black and white, good and bad, right and wrong - an encounter with the gray area can be difficult to grok. For those like me who live in a world of gray, that can accept a more nuanced view of morality, the rigidity presented by institutions like organized religion, or even a legal codices can be appalling and unbearable.

Yet in the end, for better or for worse, we are all guided on our path through life by this compass. We must trust that it will not lead us astray, but rather when our time of reckoning is at hand, deliver us in the end.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery. 

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