Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Right Thing: You Tell Me Yours

Writing in The Boston Globe in mid-August, Anne Baker and Jeannie M. Nuss began their article as follows: "The congregation of Temple B'nai Israel in Revere has a hero, although no one knows his name."

Earlier in the week members of the congregation, located not far from Boston, found that their place of worship had been "tagged" in red paint with anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas.

The incident was reported to the local police, of course, which might have been the end of it.

As temple members congregated inside, however, a car pulled up to the synagogue, and a stranger got out and began to paint over the graffiti. The painter would not give reporters or temple officials his name and would not agree to have his picture taken. As the stranger painted, the rabbi told the reporters that the group meeting inside the temple was studying texts about honesty.

The rabbi reported that the painter appeared to be very thoughtful about the job he was doing. He had chosen paint that matched the color of the temple as closely as possible.

"To me that feels like a very loving act," the rabbi told The Boston Globe.

Reading the story of the neighborly painter who wanted no credit, I was reminded of an observation by psychiatrist/writer Robert Coles, one that I cite regularly in giving talks about the importance of doing the right thing regardless of whether doing so will result in personal gain: "Character," Coles writes in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), "is how you behave when no one is looking."

Many of us have made the decision to step up and take actions that should make us proud, particularly to help fix a wrong we didn't commit. On the other hand, we've also avoided going the extra mile to help another person or group unless we received something in return.

Now it's your turn to tell me your own tale. What one story from your life captures a moment when you stepped up to do the right thing, regardless of whether or not you received recognition for it? Or, conversely, if you were given the chance but passed up the opportunity, what would you like a chance to do over, regardless of whether you were going to get credit?

Last year, after I asked readers to send me their stories, I received numerous compelling stories about the ethical quandaries they had found themselves battling. So I'm asking you again to send me your stories. Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words. I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column. Those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, The Right Thing (Smith Kerr, 2006).

Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 13, 2008, to: rightthing@nytimes.com or "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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