When I was maybe 4, I spotted a five dollar bill wafting across a shop floor in the breeze of a ceiling fan, the rough equivalent of $44 today.
With the speed and agility of a monkey I snatched it up, and with equal mental alacrity began processing a series of calculations, to wit: Did anyone see me? How might my social popularity escalate were I to be seen flashing a five spot? What if, on Judgment Day, my approval rating was running about 50-50 and my eternal destination rested upon how I handled this moral challenge?
Two factors were key to my decision. First, I understood that in 1964, a $5 bill was virtually nonnegotiable in the hands of a 4-year-old kid. The childhood infrastructure for laundering that much money into a practical form simply didn’t exist. It would be like walking into a pawn shop with the Mona Lisa — yes, you have something of incredible value, but people are going to ask questions.
Second, in my dad’s eyes, my honesty and overall virtue were always somewhat suspect, and here was a chance to “change the momentum,” as they say in sports, and maybe earn me the benefit of the doubt next time around. Besides, this wasn’t my money, it was true, but it probably wasn’t the shopkeeper’s either, so there was a very good chance that I would get to keep the money, that my parents would allow me to legitimately spend it and I would get that elusive glow of righteousness all at once.
And that is what should have happened, except it didn’t. With a flourish, I produced the bill for the shopkeeper and said “I found this!” He seemed a bit startled, but accepted the bill without comment and put it in his cash box. Nor did I get any praise from my dad, who, if anything, seemed mildly irritated.
I know now the shopkeeper was also a board member of the local bank, and it was embarrassing to him that unaccounted-for cash was blowing around his shop floor. And while my pop believed money was the root of all evil and liked to pretend he was too holy to care about wealth, five bucks was five bucks. That could have bought a week’s worth of groceries at a time when we needed it.
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But nuts to all that. I had no further use for honesty. Next time, I would find a shifty candy store owner in a green visor who would be willing to look the other way as I bought 10 cents worth of merch with a hot fin.
Maybe something like my experience happened to today’s politicians, social media influencers, athletes and cable news pundits, I don’t know. But somewhere along the line truth lost its value. God and irony have been pronounced dead at one time or another, and maybe we are witnessing the death of truth. What is virtual reality, really, but one big lie? That’s why everything today, from the firing of a football coach to medical policy, is heading to court, since that’s the only place left where lying has consequences.
There is pushback. The New York Times ran a piece, “How Honesty Could Make You Happier,” in which the author kept a “Truth Journal” and sought to snuff out even the white lies of her life, such as telling your child that a deceased pet has been relocated to a happy farm.
She said research from Notre Dame “has shown that when people consciously stopped telling lies, including white lies, for 10 weeks, they had fewer physical ailments (like headaches) and fewer mental health complaints (like symptoms of depression).”
Maybe. And maybe if you could get Donald Trump to keep a Truth Journal, it would change his life.
But in my view, nothing good will come of it until shopkeepers start returning $5 bills to little kids.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Court is the only place left where lying has consequences