Medals for Mediocrity: Living in a Culture Where Honest Behavior Is Deemed Heroic

This past Sunday evening, four college football players in Wayne, N.J., needing batteries and cable for their dorm room stereo system, went shopping.  So they walked into Buddy's Small Lots, found what they were looking for, and, seeing no cashier around, finally gave up and left the money for the purchase (including tax) on the counter. And thus began their fifteen minutes of fame.

The store was actually closed, but the front door had malfunctioned, giving them free access.  When the deed became known, a local T.V. network aired the clip from the security camera, and asked these shoppers to come forward.  They did, somewhat reluctantly, for fear they were in trouble.  Quite to the contrary, all four were applauded, interviewed on the Today show, and each given $50 gift cards to the store as a reward for their honesty.

If you take this story and winnow all the media chaff from it, what you have left is simply this:  four men acted honestly.  Presented with an easy opportunity to steal, they chose not to, but instead paid in full for the items they needed.  They did the right thing.  And for that common act of decency, they were treated as moral heroes.

While there is nothing wrong, and plenty good, with affirming honesty and encouraging decency, there is something deeply disturbing about a culture in which such actions make national news.  It is as if to say that we expect our citizens to act dishonestly, and, when they do not, we are shocked.  The store manager, when he saw on camera what the youths had done, said that his "jaw dropped."  When upright behavior is jaw-dropping, when honesty is deemed heroic, we are in a most lamentable state of affairs.

So what are we to do?  I will start in my most direct sphere of influence:  I'll talk to my children about this story.  I'll tell them what I just told you.  And I'll go on to tell them that, of course, I expect them to be honest.  I expect them not to act selfishly and steal.  But I will also affirm that they should never feel any entitlement to praise for simply doing the right thing.  The chief reward in doing what is right is simply that:  knowing that you've done what is right, that you have done your duty toward God and your fellow man.  Don't expect a $50 gift certificate for choosing to avoid a life of criminality.

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