Earl J. Hickey is a shiftless, ne’er-do-well, who, after a near-fatal accident, sees the burning bush of Karma and wants to lead a better life, or as one NHTI student so eloquently summarizes: “If you give crap, you will get crap in return.”
In the part comedy-part philosophy series, My Name is Earl, Hickey sets out to reform his ways by making a list of all his past wrongs, and one by one, correct them. Number 74, “Always ruined Joy’s Christmas,” has Earl trying to win a new car for his ex-wife in order to make up for his poor gift choices while they were married. However, what the episode is reallyabout is how easy it is for each of us to tell a little “white” lie and expect others to keep it secret by whatever means necessary, all for keeping the peace at Christmas.
When Earl discovers that his wheel-chair bound, kidney-disease-ridden ex-mother-in-law really has a gambling addiction instead of multiple disabilities, she punctuates her guilty rational with a time honored expression that becomes a mantra throughout the show: “Don’t you judge me!”
While the bible reminds us to “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” when it comes to ethics “non-judgmentalness,” ethicist Michael Josephson points out, “is simply an exchange of moral blank checks. I promise not to judge you if you promise not to judge me.”
Nonetheless, the students quickly adopt the expression and, when offering up their own rationalizations, routinely add: “Don’t you judge me!”
One woman admits that she “hates” the Christmas sweater given to her by her “sainted mother-in-law.”
“It really is pretty ugly,” her friend adds.
“If your mother-in-law is so ‘saintly,’ ” I ask, “wouldn’t she possess the necessary understanding?”
“I would never do anything to hurt her feelings!” comes her response.
While most everyone in the class has a similar “sweater” story, the focus of the discussion centers on this question: Is it ever justifiable to lie?
A nursing student raises her hand and proceeds to tell me, “Not only do I lie every day, but I have to lie regularly at my job.”
A second student explains by way of her paper. “I am not ashamed to admit that I have and do lie. In certain situations such as working with dementia patients, you need to lie for the safety of themselves and others.”
Another nursing student adds, “The kinds of questions that patients often ask have answers that could cause them undue emotional stress. I knew I didn’t want to cause emotional stress to anyone but lying over and over seemed wrong, too.
“One resident at my work would ask over and over where his wife was. His wife passed away six years ago. I observed other employees tell him that his wife had died and watched as he broke down sobbing and then got angry at himself for forgetting.
“I knew it was only a matter of time before he asked me where his wife was and I had no idea what I would say. Then it happened. He asked me where his wife was. ‘Why do you ask,’ I said.
“ ‘Because I’m thirsty, and I want to ask her for some water.’
“ ‘I can get that for you,’ I said.
“He smiled and thanked me.
“I have been at the job for over two years and have been successful in diverting tough questions like this, but feel the difference between these white lies in this situation is different than being a dishonest person.”
Clearly, when facing a choice between honesty and genuine compassion, being rigorously honest can lead to unintended consequences. And just as clearly, these students have learned how to size-up the situation and look for ways to help those in need without compromising their integrity.
For those of us not dealing with the truly needy, Josephson reminds us that “white lies often look very different from the perspective of the person lied to. The test: Upon learning of the lie, would the person lied to thank you for caring or feel manipulated or betrayed?”
Meanwhile, back to the “sweater” girl. It’s the day following our “white lie” discussion, and I’m surprised to see that she has come to class wearing what had been described as “that ugly sweater.”
(Self-restraint keeps me from posting a photo of this witness-protected “Christmas victim” wearing the notorious sweater.)
A quick poll of all forty students finds that all but one (the close friend) agree that it really doesn’t look bad, and most would certainly not characterize it as “ugly.”
As I turn to face the student, she just looks at me and says, “Don’t you judge me!”