IV. 1. Pretty Sheila Won’t Go Home

 

As we start consciously comprehending our surroundings they respond by imposing a demand on how we should perceive them. This demand focuses on a certain circumstance with which we are supposed to crown our perception of the environment. Like a powerful yet cunning horde our surroundings use a whole variety of fighting strategies – from straightforward attacks to deceitful tricks – to push this circumstance closer to the top position of our outer hierarchy. As if the very existence of our community depends on this particular circumstance – this is how actively the world tries to “sell” this circumstance to us… The world is right. The circumstance is called morality.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who used to be an eco-activist. She told me the unholy story about a poor neighborhood where some members of a local gang snared unattended pets, severely torturing and killing them at the end. They were doing all this for fun. My friend, like any normal person, was appalled over the whole story, as well as by the apparent indifference of the police. But she was especially furious that this horror had been taking place for months without anyone from the community stepping up and doing something about it. “Well, there probably weren’t enough people,” I said, referring to the fact that this part of the city was inhabited by older folks… As if they were supposed to put up a battle with the gangsters. Her answer went beyond commenting on my sheepishness: “There are always enough people!” It was a little late for me to back up, but that no longer mattered. I was struck by the unexpected yet undeniable wisdom of her last sentence. What she said was that the strength of any community was to be counted not by the number of its bayonets, but by the moral imperatives which drive the people belonging to it. Later in the day, alone, I kept going back to what my friend had said. Why was I so impressed with that short sentence? It almost sounded like a movie quote. Suddenly it dawned on me: what she gave was a definition of success, on a collective as well as on a personal level. The history of mankind has never been a mathematical aggregation of factors; nor have been human survival or development. There have existed species stronger and physically fitter than us. But humanity gave birth and growth to something unique: morality.

Morality has served as every person’s pass into his or her community. It became the obligatory vaccination at the entrance, keeping the human community immune to contamination from any of its members, and thus guaranteeing its progress. There are many important personal qualities which influence how a community will treat you; but the possession of only one of them can turn you into a leader, and the lack of only one of them can lead you to punishment. In both cases this quality is morality. That is why no matter how this strange unwritten system of behavioral codes has changed through the ages, no matter how extremely diverse it is nowadays, morality is, and will always be, a significant, crucial circumstance in everyone’s perception of the environment.

We know quite well that every action we perform is being judged by the community. In order to get a judgment that works to our advantage we work very hard on improving our perception of the community’s moral standing. Through contact with others, through stories witnessed, heard or read, and through various cultural encounters we assess the overall moral medium in which we live. We apply this knowledge to our decision making process, turning it into a very important “adviser” on the pros and cons of our future actions. Our experience grows to teach us that morality is the law everybody abides by, the gate everyone has to go through, the social contract which makes all people predictable in both their actions and reactions. That is why, once we grasp how much we need our community, we willingly sign this contract, and carefully monitor our own behavior in accordance to it.

Pretty Sheila is having problems with the owner of the cafe she works in. It’s Friday afternoon, and her friend has just called her with the news of a really important audition starting in an hour or so. It’s a killer role, and Sheila feels that the part can be hers. But she is stuck behind the counter, with no one to cover for the rest of her shift. She calls the other two guys working there to come to her rescue, but after having done this several times over the last weeks both of them say they are busy. The owner flatly refuses to let her leave early. She knows that it’ll be slow and the old fool (who will stick around anyway) can make the few lattes for the stray late afternoon lay-abouts. But for him things don’t look the same: she has to stay no matter what compelling reasons she might have for leaving. After arriving late for a dozen shifts and not showing up for two more, she has to decide if she wants the job at all…

Things had been quite different for pretty Sheila before she moved out of her hometown three months ago. Ever since she discovered at the age of eight her vocation to be an actress she has been enjoying the status of a starlet. Her friends envied her talent silently and obeyed her whims heartily; her teachers made exception after exception about her absences from school so that she could keep taking part in the local monthly TV show; and her father simply melted when she sang for the family guests at the home parties. Nobody was surprised when after high school her parents supported her move to the big city where she continued to pursue her acting dream. She just had to earn her pocket money… This makes her think twice before abandoning herself to the impulse of throwing her apron in the owner’s face and quitting. Now she tries to calmly gauge the pros and cons of her situation, taking into additional consideration the easy work, and, well, all the useful connections she makes in the café… Finally she decides to forget about the audition, put that magnificent smile on her face and work on mending fences with the old idiot.

What Sheila is doing is not only accepting the rules of her new workplace. She is embracing the communal morality stretching far beyond the crew of the café and its owner. Having stepped into a completely unknown social circle she reveals that every new conquest has a new toll that goes with it. From now on pretty Sheila can also call herself smart for having referred to the notion of morality in her perception of the environment and allowing it to influence her behavior. Her cell phone is already ringing with the news of another great audition, this time scheduled for her day off.

The morality of any society on any level grows with the experience generations gain and pass to the next. It is an asset of mankind shaped and developed by the majority of people having lived on the face of the Earth. Every social contributor has paid their share in the formation of the morality of their time. This is why the community is so demanding of its new members, who are charged with keeping alive the flame kindled by their predecessors.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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