Our True Value

Published: July 21, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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The first ethics talk I gave was in September 1995 before 400 California teachers.

I remember checking into the hotel about five hours before I was due to speak. I don’t know how other speakers prepare, but I am constantly writing and rewriting – sometimes just before I go on – all in an effort to include the most current news stories. More than anything else, the talk must do four things: address the self-interest of the audience; make ethics clear and approachable; never sound like, eat your spinach, it’s good for you!; finally, should be reasonably entertaining.

The most effective way I’ve found to do this is through the use of stories. That first talk, Values, Ethics and the Lone Ranger, used a kind of what if story to capture the attention of the audience.

Silence, intense and oppressive, gripped the desolate landscape as two lone figures rode toward the town ahead. The taller of the two sat astride a magnificent white stallion and although his face was masked, all who had known him knew that he was as legendary for his remarkable sense of justice and fair play as for his skill with six-gun, rope and horse. His faithful Indian friend was his only companion.

A few miles more and they’d arrive in Pine Needle, a small mining town on the other side of Flint Ridge. The Lone Ranger and Tonto had successfully captured Buck Bledsoe and his gang. 

They retrieved the payroll money stolen from Dave Collins and saved the Lucky Strike mine from imminent bankruptcy not to mention the jobs of many of the town’s small population. All that remained was to ride to the other side of that ridge and they could call it another job well done. But first, they stop to water their horses.

As they do, the Ranger goes to his saddle bags and removes the money. Counting the gold coins by hand, he starts to figure, “Bullets, $20; food while tracking the outlaws, $3.00 a day for five days, that’s $15; health insurance, $10; laundry, $5…

“Excuse me, Kemo Sabay,” Tonto says, “but don’t forget about the Vet bill for Scout shot in gun battle.”

“Thanks, Tonto,” the masked man says then proceeds to add another $15. “That takes care of expenses. Now, our 30% finder’s fee should complete the total. Here’s your share, Kemo Sabay,” the Ranger says as he hands a portion of the money to Tonto. A moment later, the masked rider of the plains leaped onto his sturdy horse.

The Indian eyed his share skeptically but returned to his saddle without a word.

Later, after the Ranger and Tonto delivered the money to Dave Collins and left town in their usual uncelebrated manner, a few more facts come to light, disturbing facts. For one thing the Ranger never mentioned anything about expenses or a finder’s fee. For another, he told Tonto that they would always split fifty-fifty, but the sharp eyes of the Indian recognized that his take had been reduced by a whopping 15%!

And what about the payroll money? How is Dave going to pay all the people in the town without the right amount?

Meanwhile, back on the prairie, after a hearty meal, Tonto’s tethering the horses for the night when he notices that the masked man has fallen asleep. Quietly, the Indian creeps over to his companion’s saddle bags and retrieves his missing share.  After a second thought, he “bags” a few silver bullets for himself. 

HOLD IT!    WAIT A SECOND!!

What’s going on here? Lying, cheating, stealing?

What do we care about?  What do we stand for?  If we all want to do the right thing, then what IS the right thing and can we stand by our beliefs in the face of those who many not agree?

The group’s reaction was immediate: the Lone Ranger and Tonto would never do anything like that; and they clearly understood the importance ethics plays in all of our lives.

Forty minutes later, I’m coming to the end of the talk and I want to leave the group with something short and memorable. Now, remember, I’m speaking to 400 teachers – teachers who have read or know most of the memorable stuff in literature. What can I possibly come up with that would be fresh and satisfying?

Sitting in my office drinking a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea, I read a poem by 19th century American poet Alice Cary on the back of the box. Edited from a longer poem, Cary had a singular way of distilling wisdom into a few sentences entitledOur True Value –

True worth is in being, not seeming,—
In doing, each day that goes by,
Some little good—not in dreaming
Of great things to do by and by.

For whatever men say in their blindness,
And spite of the fancies of youth,
There’s nothing so kingly as kindness,
And nothing so royal as truth.

We cannot make bargains for blisses,
Nor catch them like fishes in nets;
And sometimes the thing our life misses
Helps more than the thing which it gets.

For good lieth not in pursuing,
Nor gaining of great nor of small,
But just in the doing, and doing
As we would be done by, is all.

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