Truth and consequence

This column deals with the conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily

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"Has Marta been talking to you on the phone?" Shooting through the telephone wire, Patricia's angry tone startled me. I was living in Mexico and rented my house from Patricia. I knew she was temperamental, but until then I had never had trouble with her. The woman she asked about worked for her full time and for me once a week. Marta had not phoned me that day. But I couldn't imagine why Patricia thought that was her business.

Her question sounded like an accusation, and instinct told me to offer no unnecessary information. I breathed deeply, and waited. Gradually, through her sputtering inarticulate rage, clues to what Patricia wanted of me began to emerge. She had been at her office that day and tried calling home, where Marta was minding her kids.

After 20 minutes of busy signals, infuriated, she concluded Marta must be chatting on the phone instead of attending to the children. When Marta finally answered and realized how angry her boss was, she thought it would help if she claimed she'd been talking to me.

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Now Patricia kept demanding an answer of me, and neither of my choices seemed tolerable. Telling the truth meant contradicting Marta's story, which could feed Patricia's anger and might even get her fired. For Marta, a single mother supporting three children, that could spell disaster. Besides, Marta had always been thoroughly conscientious - and even if she had lied to Patricia, it wasn't for me to judge her.

I didn't see how I could tell the truth, if that meant serious problems for her.

"Why even hesitate?" my friends would have asked. "Why quibble about a white lie if it will protect Marta from that mean boss of hers?"

The answer, for me, is that lying is wrong. Almost never does the end justify the means. That rather lofty-sounding principle has practical implications in many situations, and this seemed to be one of them. How could the "end" justify lying, when I couldn't predict what it would be? There were too many unknowns. Lying was not an option.

But that still left Marta in a hazardous situation, one she didn't deserve, even if she had helped construct this either/or box Patricia had put me in. To get out of it, I had to find a third way.

"Patricia," I said, "this is between you and Marta. I'm not getting in the middle."

She kept demanding that I answer her question, and I kept refusing. Her voice rose, "Just wait, Ginny, until you need something from me, and see what happens." She slammed down the phone.

The next morning she slid an eviction notice under my door. Marta did not come to work for me that week, or the next. I quickly found another place to live, but each day, as I packed, I worried about whether she had lost her job, and how she was feeding her kids.

If my action had been right, why did I feel so bad? Apparently, doing good is no guarantee of feeling good.

Three weeks later, Marta knocked at my door. Patricia had forbidden her to work for me, or even talk to me. But Marta had taken the chance of sneaking over anyway. For a week, she said, she'd endured Patricia's temper tantrums and threats to fire her.

I winced. "Marta, that's awful. I'm so sorry."

"Oh no," Marta said, flashing one of her sunny smiles. "It's over. Everything is fine again."

Not for the first time, or the last, I learned that consequences are not predictable, nor mine to control. I can hold myself responsible only for my own decisions, my own actions.

So that, I thought, is the end: clearly not disastrous; and clearly not the end I predicted.

*Ginny NiCarthy, a freelance writer in Seattle, is the author of 'Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life' (Seal Press, 1982).

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