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Sunday, December 09, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: DEFINING MOMENTS

Several weeks ago I told readers about William J. LeMessurier, the architect who designed the Citicorp tower in New York (THE RIGHT THING: YOU TELL ME YOURS). In 1978, a year after the tower was completed, he was informed that, because a steel contractor had chosen a method of bolting joints inferior to the method LeMessurier had specified, hurricane winds might blow the building off its footings.

The contractor's decision was directly contrary to his instructions, and was not LeMessurier's responsibility. If he went public, however, it might sully his considerable reputation. Nonetheless LeMessurier decided that, regardless of professional consequences, he had to go public and get the problem fixed. By doing so LeMessurier, who died in June at 81, solidified his reputation as someone who put public safety ahead of his own interests.

I challenged my readers to tell me similar stories of defining moments in their lives, experiences that paint a picture of who they are. The stories I received demonstrate how such experiences can dramatically affect our sense of what it is to do the right thing.

THE FRUIT OF EARLY LESSONS

In the late 1930s, when Juanita Coulson of London, Ohio, was about 6, her mother took her to a grocery store. Coulson stayed outside to play while her mother shopped. Soon the store owner's daughter, about her own age, joined her.

Along the outside wall of the store was a mesh container of fruits and vegetables. The owner's daughter took two bananas and gave one to Coulson. When her mother saw her eating a banana, however, she questioned her.

"My explanation that the store owner's daughter `said it was OK' was not sufficient," Coulson writes.

Her mother gave her a couple of pennies and told her to pay the owner and to apologize for taking the fruit without first asking permission.

"I was not spanked or otherwise chastised," says Coulson, who is now 74. "But the lesson was permanently etched on my brain."

DID I DO ENOUGH?

Thirty years ago or so, Kate Nelson of Garnet Valley, Penn., was waiting in the downstairs bar of a Boston restaurant along with her parents, her brother and his girlfriend for their table to be readied upstairs. Unexpectedly, Nelson recalls, another patron collapsed at her feet.

"It was clear that the man was choking and couldn't breathe," she writes.

Her brother's girlfriend, a nurse, tried unsuccessfully to clear his airway with her fingers. Then her brother and father stood the man up so that they could perform the Heimlich maneuver. Again no luck.

When Nelson asked the bartender to call 911, he told her that the telephone was for restaurant business only. She found a public telephone. She then walked upstairs and asked the restaurant manager if he could ask if any of the diners was a doctor who could help.

"There's no doctor here," he said. "Go back downstairs."

She did so, and her family continued working on the man until the paramedics arrived. The next morning she called the police to inquire about him.

"The police told me that he had died," she writes.

Nelson continues to puzzle over the manager's callousness and why, as waitresses stepped over the man's body, no one else in the restaurant tried to help.

"I have spent 30 years," she concludes, "wondering why I didn't ignore the restaurant manager and yell out loud for a doctor."

HEALTHY YOUNG EXAMPLES

Maryanna Klatt, an assistant professor of clinical-allied medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, challenged the students in her medical-ethics course to tell me their stories.

One writes about when she was 6 years old and her mother asked her to keep an eye on her year-old brother in the bathtub while she answered a ringing telephone. After her mother left, the girl decided to get a toy from her room -- but, when she returned, she found her brother lying flat on the tub floor. He wasn't breathing. Her mother called 911 and continued to try to revive her brother. It wasn't until the paramedics arrived and did CPR that he finally spit up water and regained consciousness.

"I'll never forget how that small moment of carelessness had turned into the worst day of my life," she writes.

Another student recalls entering the apartment she shared with two roommates to find drunken revelers.

"There was a burst of laughter as one attendee fell off a barstool onto the floor," the student writes.

An 18-year-old partyer was passed out and didn't respond to efforts to awaken her. Her friends didn't want to call for help, and she feared getting into trouble for allowing a minor to drink in her apartment.

Nonetheless she convinced her roommate to call 911 "because staying out of trouble was not worth risking a life."

Yet another student recalls how she stopped visiting the grandmother who had "practically raised me when I was a child" after the grandmother was placed in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer's.

"I felt uncomfortable, scared and sad," she writes. But she now observes that Alzheimer's patients "sometimes have momentary recollections and can even experience moments of joy from having someone touch them or be with them."

She'd like to think that, if given the chance, she'd do things differently now.

An early lesson taught Coulson to do the right thing. In spite of misgivings about whether she did enough, Nelson and her family stepped up to help someone in need. And it's clear that Klatt's students' lives have been profoundly shaped by past experiences.

"They saw how past actions influence the people we become," Klatt writes.

The stories that many readers generously sent me suggest that such defining moments motivate them to do the right thing today. That is indeed a hopeful sign for all of us.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to find out about your book.

People often comment that I was obviously close to my mother and that's why I brought her in my home for the last few years of her life. (The topic of caregiving and family care is covered in my book and when I speak on this subject).

I tell them, "Not necessarily." Like many things in life I cared for my mother because it was the right thing to do.

Caregiving is about integrity--whether it's in your home or overseeing a loved one's care. Closeness--or not being close doesn't, or shouldn't be the primary focus. Many families have complex and tangled histories, and I'm not advocating that anyone shoud place themselves back in an unhealthy environment, but I am hoping and suggesting that as the as the issues that surround caregiving continue to come to the forefront, that we think about the person we strive to be--and the person our own children--and society observes.

Ethical issues in caregiving run the gambit from personal/everyday care to finances, to medical and end-of-life issues.

I'm glad to see a book that addresses integrity and ethics. It's much needed in society today.

~Carol D. O'Dell
Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir,
available on Amazon and in most bookstores