“I don’t know what to do,” said the woman. The two friends shared a sofa in a coffee shop. I had sat down in a nearby armchair. They must have been about thirty years old and were dressed formally. You could tell they had allowed themselves a few minutes during working hours to chat a bit. One was blonde, the other brunette. This was the one who was talking about her anguish. I had taken the subway from the airport straight to this cafeteria, where I used to meet my daughter, who studied at the university campus across the street. It was a custom for us to meet there, even before I went to the hotel, when I travelled to the city she lived in to visit her; a simple ritual, but it was ours. Rituals serve to create identities and sew the bonds of love. The place had a good movement of people. I ordered a cup of coffee and, fumbling with my suitcase, I looked for a place to sit, only to find it very close to these two friends. It was inevitable to listen to their conversation, because the brunette was distressed, like someone who is lost in front of one of the many bifurcations imposed by existence. Although she tried to control herself, her tone of voice was slightly altered due to some emotional dissonance.
There was still some twenty minutes before my daughter arrived. I was enjoying a wonderful coffee, almost creamy, made by a young and beautiful barista, full of tattoos and piercings. The brunette woman continued to explain to her friend the reasons for the distress that had shaken her tranquillity. She had discovered that a colleague had embezzled money from the company where she worked. It was a considerable amount. Before reporting the matter to the management, she had sought out her colleague to talk to him. She thought this was a sensible attitude, since they had worked in the same department for some time. From what I could gather, John was his name. A man of her age, cultured and sensitive. He was well liked by everyone in the company. It had been a surprise for her; it would be a disappointment for everyone.
They arranged to have lunch to talk things over calmly. Then, an even bigger surprise. The woman told John that she had discovered the embezzlement and that if he didn’t do it himself, she would report the facts to the company directors that very day. She was giving him a chance to redeem himself. The colleague listened without saying a word. At the end, he asked the waiter to cancel the lunch order and that she would be kind enough to accompany him. He took her to a hospital specializing in fighting childhood cancer. His niece was admitted there and the embezzled money was used to pay for her treatment. John told her that he had never stolen anything and knew it was wrong. But he was not strong enough to resist the temptation; or, seen from another angle, he was strong enough to face his own shame and try to save the girl. He asked his colleague to tell nothing and promised that if he ever managed to earn an equivalent sum of money, he would give it back to the company. He added that if she reported the facts, he would be fired and, worse, he would hardly get an equivalent job. He confessed that he really needed that job, not only for the money, but he had only graduated a few years earlier and had many professional dreams, which would inevitably be jeopardized if there was a financial loss in his curriculum.
Her friend listened with teary eyes. The brunette continued: “On the other hand, I am one of the people responsible for the firm’s accounts. There is a relationship of trust between me and the management. A bond that cannot be broken. Furthermore, I have an ethical commitment to myself. Reporting the facts may show insensitivity on my part; covering up John’s actions would be dishonest with the company. Besides I would be colluding with fraud and lying. I would be his accomplice.”
The blonde wanted to know what her friend would do. The brunette also had a wet face, swallowed dryly and revealed, “I did”. After a brief pause and said, “I told the board everything yesterday”. She looked deeply at her friend and continued, “Earlier today, I woke up to the news of John’s suicide. He couldn’t bear it.”
And she began to sob.
The blonde was trying to console her friend. To make matters worse, the brunette said that when she arrived at the company, she was received with disapproving looks by most of the employees, who blamed her for John’s death. She felt out of place and out of her environment at work. “I’m feeling like the worst of creatures,” she confessed.
The two women were only a little older than my daughters. I was touched by the story. I waited for the brunette’s eyes to meet mine. When she realized that I was looking at her, she asked, “Did you hear?” she wanted to know. I nodded my head affirmatively. “Do you feel sorry for me?” she asked again. I told her no. “Why are you looking at me then? Are you also reproaching me?”, she felt cowed. “Not at all,” I replied. I then said, “Do you accept a hug? I want to offer my heart to ease your pain,” I explained. It was the girl’s turn to nod her head saying yes.
I gave her a tight and long hug. So much so that her tears wet my shirt. Clumsily, she apologized. I smiled at her and said, “That will never be a problem”. She asked if I meant the wet shirt. I clarified, “I am talking about the problem that ails you, in fact, it serves for all problems. I learned from an old monk that the problem will never be a problem, unless we do not know how to react to the situation”.
The brunette asked me if I thought she had acted wrong in denouncing John. “No,” I replied. She questioned again, “So you think I acted correctly.” I shrugged and muttered, “not really”.
She went on again about how people blamed her for John’s death. She wanted to know if I thought so too. I was clear: “Certainly not.” The girl said she didn’t understand me. I clarified, “It was a situation in which no one else lived it, only you. It was your dilemma; it was you who were walking through the storm. Therefore, neither I nor anyone else has the right to create existential tribunals. Neither should you accept the role of the defendant that they try to impose on you. Understand that there is no need for judgments, either by yourself or by the world.”
I took a sip of coffee; it had gone cold. I offered to get some more for all of us. They accepted. The same barista, that young woman with all the tattoos and piercings, handed me a tray with three steaming cups. When I went to pay, she told me she didn’t need them. She said she didn’t know why, but from afar she was sympathetic to the brunette’s tears. I thanked her and sat down with the girls. We introduced ourselves. The blonde was called Liz; the brunette, Beth. They asked me to explain myself better. I accepted the invitation and stated without any doubt: “You didn’t kill John. You didn’t convince him to jump off the terrace, push him onto the subway tracks, or persuade him to take an overdose of tranquillisers. The decision to kill himself was his alone. Just as it was his choice to steal company funds, in a very noble move, it should be noted, to fund his niece’s treatment.” Beth interrupted me and pondered under the argument that, if John’s attitude had been noble, hers had been petty.
I disagreed again and expanded the reasoning: “We can consider John’s attitude noble for some good reasons. Above all, John was ethical.” It was Beth’s turn to disagree. She maintained that his gesture was noble because it was clothed in generosity and mercy. He had put his reputation and professional future on the line in an attempt to save his niece. However, the fraud had been a mistake. It was a criminal offence; hence, unethical.”
I explained to them how I thought: “Ethics has little, if anything, to do with laws. Ethics inhabits a universe beyond crimes. This is why ethics is dangerous in the sense of transforming and empowering a person’s life.”
“Ethics is an age-old interest of humanity. The classical Greeks discussed it deeply. Spinoza, a rationalist philosopher, devoted a book to it. Metaphysicians also treat it with care and affection because of its importance, since it speaks of the restructuring of values and the acquisition of virtues for a better existential condition. Some religious currents sustain that ethics is primordial to spiritual evolution”. I took a sip of coffee and added, “John was ethical. The generosity and mercy, which you referred to, were part of John’s personal code of ethics.”
“Ethics navigates on a consciential axis: knowing what I want for myself and what I don’t want. What I want for myself, I also do for others; what I don’t want, I refuse to practice. It doesn’t matter what the laws say, the looks of censorship or the speeches of applause; the preconceived ideas, the social standards and the cultural rules.”
“Ethics is the choice tied to the level of consciousness and capacity to love. Therefore, it changes from one individual to another, and even in the same person, to the extent of their transformations throughout life. Spinoza said that we should not laugh at or despise the attitudes of others. Rather, we should understand their reasons.”
“John took the attitude he thought was right; however, he was not mature enough to deal with the inevitable effects. Every choice corresponds to a responsibility.”
“However, while the beauty of John’s generosity is undeniable, he lacked the necessary courage to face the consequences. The virtues complement each other in balance as an efficient method of enhancing choices and strengthening the self.”
“Transferring responsibility is a shadow; demanding that others follow us is another very common shadow. Both stem from fear. An improved code of ethics requires a lot of compassion, humbleness, firmness and courage, as well as love, of course, from its bearer. The more dignified and free it’s lines are, the less acceptance it will have by those who do not yet understand its scope. It will be necessary to face this lack of understanding of the world with maturity. This is the root of peace. All the strength one needs awaits him within himself.”
Beth admitted that she doubted my consistency. The attitudes, hers and John’s, were antagonistic. If I supported John’s ethics, I indirectly claimed that she had been unethical. Soon, her colleagues were right to blame her for his death. She had put him in a vexatious position. I shook my head and explained, “There is an error of premise leading to a mistaken conclusion. One thing does not always cancel out the other in opposition. We have to learn to think without Manichaeism, in the outdated formula of dividing the world between heroes and villains. This, besides being a mistake, makes life very boring, shallow and heavy.”
I took a sip of coffee, before it got cold again, and clarified: “Beth, you were also ethical. Although you were touched by John’s fine motives, you felt you couldn’t bear the moral burden of hiding his wrongdoing. You understood that this attitude made you an accomplice to the fraud and you refused to condone the crime. He had made a commitment when he accepted the post; his honesty is also a virtue. Not forgetting that he was given the opportunity to approach the directors to try to olve the issue, without the need for you to report him. He would have come out strengthened if he did so, especially for himself.”
“But John refused to engage in confrontation. Perhaps because he was not ready for it; a fact that cannot be attributed to you. On the other hand, you acted according to your moral concepts; you decided because of your professional commitments and your capacity to bear the consequences within the company. Yes, if you had covered up for John and they were discovered by another employee, you would also be held responsible for the embezzlement. Both you and John acted in accordance with your principles and values. You both were ethical.”
Beth raised another hypothesis: “If I understood differently and decided to protect John, even at the risk of being compared to him, would I still be ethical?” I immediately replied, “If the conviction necessary for the choice was harmonized between the mind and the heart, the answer is yes.”
She looked for a few seconds at the street through the coffee shop window, looked at me again and concluded, “Only John is responsible for his death. No one else.”
I reminded her of the most important thing: “John had a problem because he didn’t know how to face the effects of his choice. You will also have a problem if you do not understand how you should react to the consequences of your decision.”
Then came the inevitable question. She wanted to know how she should react to the disapproving looks and comments of her co-workers. I did not hesitate: “With ethics”.
She looked at me startled as if I were crazy. I smiled. Then I asked her in order to clarify my reasoning: “Do you know what to do with yourself?” Stunned, she didn’t answer. I explained so that there would be no doubt: “This is an unconscious question in most people. They don’t know what to make of themselves. Ethics shows me not only the person I am, but teaches me how to get to the person I want to be. Ethics is the exercise of virtues applied to life. It teaches me a lot about love.”
Beth confessed that she was not sure she could overcome the condemnation imposed by her colleagues. I exposed my way of thinking: “Understand that every public judgment is vile and coward. They analyse without knowledge and criterion. They add the weight of their frustrations and sorrows. They judge easily because they have difficulty to understand who they are. Refuse to participate in this sad spectacle; you have this right”.
“Never allow the darkness of the world to extinguish your light.”
“Remember that we must know what we want and what we do not want for ourselves. Ethics is this rail; virtues are the locomotive that propels the wagon of life.”
“Do not forget that you have acted within your parameters of conscience and love. In this moment, you have made a sincere decision in your relationship with yourself and was honest with the world. Can the understanding as to the breadth of these concepts change? Of course! Just like everyone else, you are in the midst of a process of evolution, and for this you will go through countless transformations. Should I feel guilty if tomorrow I think differently than I do now? No. Because at this moment you are offering your best, you are at the limit of your capacity. For the moment, that is all that matters. However, make a commitment to always try to do things differently and better next time. Therefore, forgive those who cannot understand you. To forgive is to offer a way out into the light for those who are lost in the darkness.”
“Within every person there is a warrior and a monk. Their fusion creates the master. That is why there is a need for infinite transformations until the perfect balance between which of the virtues to apply in each case, because there is a time for the yes and a time for the no. Always believe in yourself, because in your core are kept all the answers to endless questions. Therefore, never stop trusting yourself.”
“Other than that, move on. Regrets, blames and squabbling lead to stagnation; this, yes, is a mistake. Life demands movement. Without progress there is no light.”
We remained for a while without saying a word, just looking at each other. Beth gave a deep sigh and then a beautiful smile. She said that the conversation had taken an enormous weight off her back. In fact, her features were lighter. I winked an eye, as if to joke, and insisted: “Do you know what to do with yourself?”. She smiled again and answered: “Some things I know, others I don’t yet. Of the things I do know, I will never forget one: I will never let the darkness of the world put out my light again.”
Liz, satisfied with her friend’s renewed cheerfulness, gave her a kiss on the cheek. When we drank our coffee again, it had gone cold. We laughed. At this moment, my daughter walked into the coffee shop. We exchanged a tight hug. It had been almost a year since I had seen her. I introduced her to Liz and Beth. They chatted a bit about pleasantries, but we had to leave. We said goodbye not knowing if we would ever meet again. This is the part that falls to the magic of life.
As I was leaving, the barista, that girl full of tattoos and piercings, handed me a disposable cup with fresh coffee and said it was because my cup was getting cold. Once again, she didn’t want to charge me. She claimed it was already paid for. My daughter was surprised and asked who the girl was. I explained: “She is an angel. They have a thousand disguises”.
Already on the sidewalk, through the window of the cafeteria, I saw Beth for the last time. She was looking at me. She moved her lips slowly so that I understood her words. It was a summary of that conversation: “Forgive, trust yourself and move on”.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic