When Values Go Viral

If you’ve ever watched the 2007 Coen Brothers classic “No Country for Old Men”, you know it’s the story of a relentless manhunt across the southwest, fueled by greed and ill-gotten gains.

What you may not know, unless you’ve seen the just-as-classic movie poster, is that the sub-title is “There Are No Clean Getaways”.

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In this morning’s news, we’ve got two fresh reminders of the power and truth of that phrase. Three “Good Samaritans” in Philly – a homeless man and a couple who befriended him – have been alleged to be conspirators who callously created a GoFundMe campaign that bilked the public out of over $400,000. The couple has turned themselves in to the authorities, and the homeless man is being sought.

In a separate story (accompanied by undeniable video) a college basketball player was shown in the act of striking an opponent in the face with a vicious, apparently premeditated elbow. The final straw was that the assailant appeared to strike at a moment when he knew the referee was looking the other way, immediately after the victim had scored on a difficult three-point shot. The player’s school has dropped him from the team, banned him from campus and is considering further action.

So what do these two sad affairs have in common? Both appear to be situations where someone thought they could beat the system…that they could get what they wanted at someone else’s expense– financial gain or personal payback – without suffering the consequences.

Both were wrong, for different reasons. In the Philly case, it’s particularly appropriate to remember Ben Franklin’s admonition that two men can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead. People get greedy, people talk, and that’s a fact. In the case of the hoopster, he assumed that since the ref was literally looking the other way, no one would notice when he struck. But in this world, someone is always watching, and is probably taking video. There are no clean getaways.

But there’s a deeper message – a deeper level of consistency here. In both cases, the values of a few human beings were tested, and came up short in a highly visible way, fueled by the viral nature of our communications. We know that to be human is to be a maddening mix of good and evil, of selfishness and charity, of love and callousness. As we work through that tangle every day, our values are what tip the balance between those conflicting traits. Our values ultimately determine whether the actions we take are for the greater good or for personal gain at the expense of others.

It’s one thing to know that, in cases like this, there are no clean getaways. That may curb the worst instincts that we, as humans, exhibit and encounter.

It’s another thing to realize that our values aren’t just something we have…our values are deeply held beliefs that are tested in ways large and small. My favorite definition of values is that they are a set of beliefs that determine what you do when no one is watching, but Socrates, a famous old guy, said it best – “The unexamined life isn’t worth living”. Realizing that our values are ours to examine, and the consequences, both anticipated and unintentional are ours to own, can help us be better people in a world that craves the goodness that you can bring to it.