Sunday, December 05, 2021

Tell me your stories of doing right when no one was looking

 I’ve often quoted psychiatrist and author Robert Coles who wrote in his book “The Call of Stories: Teaching and Moral Imagination” (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) that character “is how you behave when no one is looking.” As we reach the end of another particularly challenging year, I’m curious how you’ve behaved on occasions when no one is looking.

Since at least March 2020, many of us have wrestled in one way or another with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve been sequestered at home. We’ve been careful in the way we shop or socialize with others outside of our home. Parents of young and school-age children have worked to find a way to keep their kids safe and educated while balancing their own work lives thrown off kilter. We’ve been tested, received vaccinations and now boosters, and some of us have made our way back to work while adjusting to a new reality of wearing masks and continuing to be cautious.

And all the while we’ve continued to be faced with ethical challenges. Some are big, but most are the small day-to-day variety that call on us to be honest or kind when no one is watching. Those small day-to-day actions partly define our character. They may not involve saving a life or single-handedly ending hunger in our community, but they define us nonetheless, even when it feels like it’s no big deal.

I was reminded of this last weekend when I engaged in the first of the big leaf rake-ups for the season. The woman I’d eat bees for and I spent about seven hours over two days bagging up leaves and bringing them to our town’s public composting site. It takes a few trips to get all the leaves loaded on the back of an old pickup truck to the site. On one of the trips, I noticed that instead of the 16 bags of leaves I can carry on each trip, I was one bag short. On the way home, I noticed a bag of leaves on the side of the road. There was no easy pull over so I continued driving home.

It would not be truthful for me to tell you that the thought didn’t cross my mind to just leave the bag there. There was after all no way to trace it back to me unless someone had seen it fall off the truck.

That thought passed and I left an empty spot for the bag for the return trip to the composting site, put my hazard lights on as I pulled as far off to the side of the road as possible, and heaved the escaped bag into its spot on the back of the truck.

A small thing, but one less bit of trash for the town employees to clean up and less risk that the bag might blow into traffic and cause a motorist some woe. It was clearly a small thing, but it was the right thing to do.

Now, tell me the small or not so small things you’ve done or others have done for you when no one was looking over the past year-and-a-half or so. Tell me who and where you are and send your stories to me at If it’s OK with you, I may share some of your stories in the weeks ahead.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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