Some years ago my life was at a terrible low point. My marriage was failing, my career seemed stagnant, and I was stuck in what seemed to be a sea of bleak misery. Many of my problems seemed to stem from my reluctance to do bad things and the willingness of others to prosper through misdeeds.
One morning, when things seemed to be at their lowest point, I went for a run. As I ran, I thought about my life and how I ended up in the situation I faced. Interestingly enough, I had recently been teaching Plato’s “Ring of Gyges.” In this excerpt from the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon challenges Socrates to speak in defense of goodness (justice) for its own sake. He, Glaucon, proposes to speak on behalf of injustice. Glaucon makes an excellent case in support of the view that justice is a choice made out of weakness and fear. He further contended that the unjust life would be the better choice because what people truly value (wealth, power, and physical pleasures) can be best obtained by injustice.
In the past, I had always sided with Socrates and believed that justice is superior to injustice-even when it seems that the unjust triumph. But, I had seen the rewards of trying to be good and those reaped by those who have little moral compunction. At that moment, I doubted the worth and sense of trying to be a good person.
But, as I ran across the wooden bridge in the park, I saw that someone had torn one of the memorial trees out of the ground. They had left a cruel wound where the tree used to be and had tossed the uprooted tree onto a nearby picnic table.
Without reflection or thought, I ran to the hole. I looked at it and read the memorial sign. The tree was dedicated to Lancy Amelie Gray, a fifteen year old girl who had died in 2000. I then went to look at the tree. I could see that it was probably still alive. I walked back to the hole and got down on my knees. Ignoring the stares of those walking by, I dug with my hands until the hole seemed big enough for the tree. I put the tree back in the hole and packed the dirt back into place with my hands. I found a discarded water bottle nearby and ran back and forth between the tree and the fountain until the ground was well soaked.
While people often say that what they do without thinking is not the person they are, I think the opposite is true. What we do without thought often shows us who we really are. In this case, that moment showed me the man who I really am-or perhaps it just reminded me. I knew, as I pushed that earth back into place, that I was the sort of person who replanted trees and not the sort of person who would go through life tearing at things. I was still sad and my marriage still ended, but at that moment I was able to make the right choice and stay on the true path of my life.
I am no saint and have a multitude of flaws and sins. But, I do what is right and do my best to live up to being the person I am and should be. When I am troubled or need to make a difficult choice, I pause by the tree and remember who I really am. For me, that tree is my true Christmas tree.