A couple of incidents happened last week that made me think about the importance of having a social contract — an agreement, whether informal, such as mores or values, or more formal, that helps us regulate how we treat each other.
The first incident happened to my sister-in-law, a decent, hard-working school teacher, who raised a lovely daughter all on her own. My sister-in-law always seems to be on the edge of the economic precipice, one step away from poverty and despair. She is the salt of the earth and, in my mind, deserving of good things.
She left school last week to find that someone had backed into her car in the parking lot. Not only was the mirror broken, but she was unable to open the driver’s-side door. She doesn’t know who did it and the perpetrator left no note. She has insurance with a $1,000 deductible. She can’t absorb this kind of expense easily.
When my wife told me about the incident, I was furious. I was raised that you take responsibility for your mistakes and you never pass the buck onto someone else, especially not to the person you have hurt and damaged. Unable to comprehend how someone could behave this way, I was very discouraged.
The second incident involved a kayak trip, which I took a few weeks ago with my friend Phil. On the second day of the trip, I had trouble with a particular rapid and ended up upside down. Normally this is not a problem because it is a common occurrence in whitewater kayaking. But this time, I failed my roll, twice. Separated from my boat, I had to swim the rapid.
Downstream my kayak was wedged between two rocks in the middle of the river. After an hour of trying to get to it safely, I abandoned the boat since I knew it could be easily retrieved if the water level went down.
Unfortunately, by that time I would be back in Southern California. When I got home, I put the word out to the river-running community about my boat. I asked that if anyone should find it, please let me know so I could claim it.
Three weeks later, I got an email that my boat had been recovered and that Stacey, the woman who had emailed me, lived in Orange County and would be happy to bring it back with her. This would save me a 14-hour, round-trip drive.
The river-running community is known for this ethos, I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine. We know that at some time the table will turn and we may be in the same predicament. My world view was back in balance.
Society survives due partly to social agreements we make with each other — agreements like, a person’s word is their bond or try not to gain off of another person’s tragedy.
Many of these agreements fall under the umbrella of “The Golden Rule:” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a simple rule but absolutely necessary to a civil society’s survival. You might say this sort of thinking is the foundation of a good society.
The person who hit my sister-in-law’s car and fled should be ashamed. They have removed a stone from the foundation that keeps us from falling into self-serving anarchy. They demean us all by their actions.
As for Stacey, and those like her, I owe a great debt. They lift me up and restore my hope for the future and the world that my children will inherit.
Doing something just because it is the right thing to do, especially if it costs you, is noble and brings dignity to humanity. Every stone makes a ripple. Choose your stone wisely.