Doing the Right Thing

I recently read an article about a Spanish cross-country runner who did something unusual. An African runner who was well ahead of everyone else misinterpreted the location of the finish line and stopped too soon. The Spanish runner caught up to him and told him to keep running. The African runner did not understand, so the Spanish runner pushed him over the finish line. The Spanish runner did the right thing.

Reading about that incident reminded me of something I did long ago. I entered a speed-walking competition for the first and only time. I did well but I could never pass one of my own students, who made the funny little arm movements of a real speed walker. Just before the finish line, my student paused to have her photo taken by a media member. I said to the student: Don’t stop now — I am right behind you. She then took off like a rabbit and won the race. 

I told these stories to a friend of mine who works as a store clerk, and she said that several times customers had given her two fifty-dollar bills when they meant to give her only one. Each time she returned the extra bill.

My Facebook pals offered their own examples of doing the right thing. The acts ranged from helping a homeless person to making the decision to turn off life support for a family member.

Whenever I hear a story of someone doing the right thing, I think of Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing. Racist acts by a pizza store owner and his son lead a Black employee to throw a trash can through the store window. That act raises the question of whether the employee did the right thing. It is not always easy to know.

Doing the right thing sometimes is costly. John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage tells the stories of many senators who did the right thing, even though it was unpopular and led to political ruin. For instance, Sam Houston refused to serve as governor of Texas when the locals wanted to join the Confederacy.

Why do we do the right thing? The cause may be in our socially oriented genes. These lead us to do the right thing and to feel proud when we do. The effect is that we have a better world.

If you think back to times when you did the right thing, you will understand what I mean about feeling proud.

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