Friday, January 21, 2011

principles

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One of the hardest lessons I ever failed to learn was this: Just because I espouse what I consider a principled point of view does NOT mean that others will be likewise inclined. Disappointment is no way to measure a good principle ... but it sure is disappointing.

For example, I grew up with the idea that you never ratted your friends out. Even if it meant discomfort to me, ratting others out was not an option. I did my best, which was probably never as good as it might have been. But I never did get my head around my not relying on others for validation. What a sap.

For example: In the army, I belonged to a top-secret unit in Berlin. One of the rules of the unit was that we were not allowed to use the U-bahn or S-bahn -- the subway services that offered quick transportation from one point to another. Berlin, at the time, was a city that the allies had divided into four sectors after World War II -- Russian, French, British and American. The Russians, at the time, were the cold war enemies, but the U-bahn and S-bahn had been created before the war and served all parts of the city. The fear in our unit was that members of our top secret group might take the subway, fall asleep, end up in the Russian sector, and tell all our secrets.

In principle, this was fine. But in practice, the U-bahn and S-bahn were a quick, cheap way to get around and members of the unit routinely took one or the other for a night out on the town. I learned all this very quickly when I joined the unit. I was too new to do the same, but I nevertheless heard the stories ... going out to dinner, a trip to the opera, or an adventure for some stage play.

And that was when our unit suffered what I later called "The Purge." One day, we were informed that each man would be questioned individually about riding the U-bahn or S-bahn. It was a frightening prospect. Who was doing the questioning was never made entirely clear (probably the Criminal Investigation Division), but we all knew the shit was about to hit the fan.

I was led into a very large room with green linoleum floors. Two chairs facing each other were the only furniture. It was a bit like a stage set. The man who questioned me, a Mr. Beauchamp, was wearing polyester slacks and a herring-bone jacket. He had one of those little wallets that he flashed in front of me to show his credentials ... just like the movies. And then we sat down in the two chairs ... facing each other. And he began to ask questions. Had I ridden the U-bahn or S-bahn? And I could honestly say I had not. Did I know of anyone who had ridden either? And I dishonestly said I did not. The questions got to be more a more probing and as they did, the sweat began to dribble out of my armpit and down the inside of my upper arm. I hoped it would not show through the fatigues I was wearing. I was scared. Finally, the last question arrived, "And would you be willing to take a lie detector test about this subject?" And I replied, because I seemed to recall that lie-detectors were not admissible in court (though what made me imagine the army would provide anything as democratic as a court setting I don't know) ... of course I would. The whole interview probably took fifteen minutes and felt like five hours.

By the time I left that room, I was drained. My step grew lighter as I realized I had not ratted anyone out, but it had cost me. And I still wasn't sure I wouldn't be caught out in my lies and cover-ups. Still ... I hadn't ratted anyone out or caved in and I was satisfied.

That satisfaction was short-lived. When I got back to my room and talked to my roommates, it became clear that although I had not ratted anyone out, everyone else had. One or two had admitted taking the U-bahn and also admitted others had been with them. When the others were confronted by the admission made earlier, they too implicated others ... and the floodgates were open. As it turned out, so many people had ridden the U-bahn that there was nothing that could be done by way of punishment.

But I ... was ... furious! I felt betrayed and bitter that my friends and colleagues (we were all in our early 20's at the time) had given each other up. What kind of scum-bag behavior was that?! It was unspeakable! Inexcusable!!!!!

It took me a long time and plenty of subsequent practice to realize -- even just intellectually -- that if I was prepared to espouse some principle, I had best do it because I thought it was fitting or right and not because anyone else either agreed or disagreed. Group-think was not enough. Social nods of assent really didn't matter much. Age had nothing to do with it: I have seen plenty of people in the 40's, 50's, 60's and beyond who were willing to espouse and then relinquish their keenly-held principles, the stuff on which they rested whatever they imagined their integrity to be.

At the time of The Purge, I was angry with the others on whom I relied for validation. And at the time, I was prepared to think that relying on others was a total crock of shit. But these days, I do try -- not always with success -- to pick my own way and recognize it as simply being my choice, despite what anyone else praises or blames. These days, I recognize a little that finding the truth of a principle is my business, my effort ... and that's all.

It still ain't easy. I still get cranky when people dumb-down or sell-for-a-pittance the principles of Zen Buddhism, for example.

It ain't easy to live with myself.

But I try. :)
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5 comments:

  1. Good story.

    Not everyone would come to the same conclusion, however.

    For example, I wonder how many would never get beyond the feeling of "What kind of scum-bag behavior was that?! "

    (BTW -- I suppose that is called saving your own ass behavior with a pinch of pathetic patriotism.)

    I am interested in reading about your recollections of how you finally reconciled their behavior, or if you forever distrusted your coworkers.)

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  2. Distrust requires too much debilitating energy. I do, however, try to keep an eye on my expectations.

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  3. Great story, thanks.

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  4. Really enjoyed this post Adam.

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