Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Rewards of Zero-Sum

Recently I went to a bank to deposit some cash. I counted what I thought was a certain number of bills and wrote the number of bills I thought I was holding down on my deposit slip. I waited in line, then handed the bills to the teller, who counted them and told me I had given her one bill more than what I had intended to deposit. I very gratefully took the extra bill back and as I did I reflected for a moment on how good it felt to have someone treat me with honesty and decency.

I can be a very petty person, even when it isn't obvious to other people. There have been occasions in my life when I would give back change (though never anything as big as a five hundred peso bill), or give up my seat on the bus, or donate blood, or perform other small acts of kindness and for the briefest moment wonder about my cosmic reward, or, in other words, wonder what was in it for me, albeit after the fact. I can honestly say that I do not entertain these thoughts very often when I perform these acts, but they are there, as embarrassed as I am to admit their existence.

And because I am, or can sometimes be, a petty person, I found myself almost immediately humbled and shamed by this woman's no-nonsense act of decency. If she were of the same mindset as many, many corrupt individuals who pollute this country, she could have easily kept quiet, pretended that all was well, and then kept the extra P500 bill I had inadvertently handed her. I would not have known until probably much later, at which time I would have absolutely no way to prove my claim. She was actually nine months pregnant; goodness knows she could have used the money. The only thing that stood in her way of pocketing my money really, was an innate sense of responsibility. When she called my attention to the extra bill she did not hesitate, thereby making it clear that she never even so much as contemplated doing anything other than the right thing.

At the end of the day, THIS is the reward, mine and everyone else's, for being honest and forthcoming with each other: a society where no one screws other people over, where everyone gives everyone else his due, and no one gets ahead by stepping on other people's heads. Strictly speaking, we don't "get" anything for being the decent people we're supposed to be in the first place, but if it means a society where we don't have to worry every other minute about getting shafted, then that is reward enough, as far as I'm concerned.