I recently returned to a store to pay for a book—40% off, priced at $14.99—that was originally part of my order but not actually charged to me (I only discovered the error at home). When I explained the situation to the associate, I was met with a chorus of snickers, snorts, gasps and other expressions of disbelief from the customers behind me—one even saying, “Oh, come on! I have somewhere to be.” The response from the associate was no less remarkable. At first he thought I was asking for something. Then his uncertainty turned to suspicion as he began to ask more probing questions about how I got home “without paying for the book.” Finally, as he rung up the book, he watched me guardedly as if wary that I might ask him for a “discount” for my honesty.
Ours is a culture dominated by the drive of entitlement mingled with the caution of suspicion. Integrity has fallen under such scrutiny as to actually be suspect, even when it shows up in its purest forms (not to imply this is one such example). We accept that there is no such thing as a free lunch—but ours becomes the task to discover how I can eat for free while someone else pays the bill. We secure our greatest possessions, and redouble our efforts to multiply wealth—but at what point did the “pursuit of happiness” advance at the expense of character?
We have—and continue to—sacrifice that which cannot be bought for that which will eventually be spent—love exchanged for lust, trust for advancement, integrity for…a book. The US economy can, and may well, survive and recover from the current credit crisis, mortgage debacle, and economic stagflation. But as with mighty Rome before us, we cannot—nor can any nation—survive the wholesale loss of moral aptitude. When the dollar is weak, we flee to the commodities of oil and gold. But a weak character has no safe-havens against inflation. And when all is said and done, what is the price of integrity? If recent experience is any indication, it is to be acquired at bargain-bin prices—aisle 4, clearance rack, now only $14.99.