Everything action we take, large or small, has the potential to reveal character.
While most of my commentaries have involved weightier issues such as vaccinations, the death penalty, dishonesty, fraud and abuse, smaller acts take place every day that demonstrate who we are and what we stand for. A personal account by Mike Kerrigan in The Wall Street Journal (July 17), is such a story.
Kerrigan describes a time when he was a young college student in Washington, D.C. parking cars for a popular, upscale restaurant. The valets worked with the understanding that all tips would be pooled and shared at the end of the night.
“Of all the tip stories I heard,” Kerrigan writes, “Sean’s stand out. I didn’t work with Sean that night, but I trust Tom, the valet who did.
“One night, Sean retrieved a car while Tom chatted with its owner. Sean handed back the keys and received his tip. One thing valets do well is discreetly identify cash. As the car drove off, Sean realized he was holding a $100 bill.
“ ‘How’d we do?’ Tom asked.
“ ‘A hundred dollars,’ Sean answered.
“ ‘Unbelievable!’ Tom exclaimed.
“But Sean disagreed. ‘It’s not right,’ he said. ‘Look at that car. No way he meant to give us this.’
“Sean… caught the car three blocks away and explained the situation to the speechless driver, who hadn’t intended, and couldn’t afford, to tip so much. The driver took back the money, gave Sean a new tip and drove off.
“Tom started in on Sean while he was still half a block away. ‘Well?’
“Sean affirmed that the $100 had been a mistake. ‘He tipped us, though,’ Sean added, a faint smile on his face. ‘Three bucks.’
“I’ve had many occasions over the years to think about that story. When the driver took back the $100, what should he have given in its place? What was the minimum to ensure Sean stayed on the high road the next time around? Every time I’ve considered it, $20 has always seemed right.
“Only now do I realize the question is irrelevant. Only now do I know why Sean smiled. He wouldn’t even have minded getting stiffed. Sean had already made up his mind when he started running. His character wasn’t for sale.
“The more I think about it, that’s the best tip I’ve ever received.
The world is filled with deceit, fraud, abuse and injustice. Nonetheless, “People of character do the right thing,” ethicist Michael Josephson says, “not because they think it will change the world but because they refuse to be changed by the world.”