A child's ethical thicket

As children, we acquire many valuable mantras. One is to aspire to be pure in heart, another, to be true to oneself. How simple it sounds - until the moment we stare at the face of life's awesome complexity.

I remember a story my mother, Rose, told about the time her moral compass went haywire.

As a child, Rose grew up in a family of immigrants determined to survive the Depression. Life involved stretching the necessities. Soup was elemental - potatoes in water - with the children receiving the chunks of potato while the mothers and aunts would subsist on the broth. Fun consisted of innocent pleasures, such as biting into tongue-searing homemade pickled peppers while running around the driveway shouting, "Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Store-bought toys were out of the question - a circumstance noted by a kindly old gentleman who attended their parish and pitied young Rose. Which was how it came to pass that the doorbell rang. There, deposited by an unseen hand, sat a basket with a doll for the speechless Rose. It was years before she learned who had bequeathed the foundling, whom she named Agnes, after no one in particular.

Soon enough her joy began to mingle with worry. For Agnes the baby was naked.

Convincing certain children that a toy isn't real is as tough as persuading certain teddy- bear dealers that teddy won't suffocate if wrapped in plastic. To them, it is a creature with feelings and sensations - a bona fide member of the peaceable kingdom. Rose fretted about Agnes being cold in the winter. The doll's vulnerability might have reminded the girl of her own precarious future. Like a mother bird feathering and shielding her nest, Rose saw herself as Agnes's anointed protector.

What's more, the obligation had a sacred dimension: The Bible instructed her to clothe the naked. And didn't God rebuke those who disobeyed? Rose was entangled in an ethical thicket: How could she honor her commitment to Agnes without sewing skills, a begging cup, or help from her parents?

The answer materialized at the local five-and-dime store in the form of a fluorescent orange dress. There it lay - ripe for the taking. Had she heard of Robin Hood, champion of the poor? On the one hand, she knew it was wrong to steal; on the other, it was wrong to neglect her charge. Maybe, on the third hand, she sensed the unfairness of clothes lying idle when someone could use them. On the fourth, she might have even felt a shiver of entitlement. Why should she not, this once, own a pretty dress - even if only for Agnes? Perhaps a primal instinct overtook her: What harm could accrue from breaking the law if the heart was true and the cause was just?

She snatched the dress and dashed away on panicked legs. Her heart was thumping hard enough to punch a hole in concrete. Just as she started across the bridge for home, it rumbled beneath her feet. To her it was a sign of God's displeasure. The floor of the bridge was about to open! Before her eyes appeared her mother's tear-streaked face. She was going to plunge into the river below, never to be heard from again.

Deep within her, something shifted. The pillaging phase was over.

The crusading had only begun. Rose went on to become a social worker, devoted to anyone slipping through the floor of society's bridges. Once she disarmed - literally and figuratively - a boy concealing weapons in his jacket at school and helped him put his life back in order. On another occasion, at 3 o'clock in the morning, she hopped into clothes and raced across the city to translate into Spanish for a terrified family with the police pounding on the door. Through dozens of organizations - political, educational, civic, and religious - she pushed for economic and social justice, from assistance for the needy and elimination of bias to more-equitable sharing of power and wealth.

When she died, the church was jammed with hundreds of mourners from across the American spectrum - black and white, old and young, affluent and humble. In broken English and funny asides, they spoke of the remarkable woman who had taken the time to change their lives.

A purist might insist the young Rose committed a crime and deserved to be punished. The reality was so much richer! Here was a child trying to strike the right balance between abstract reason and living compassion. A youngster was testing (and internalizing) limits, learning to address a perceived injustice through a deepening awareness of the social contract, and creating a personal mythology. She had undergone a trial by fire, or dress, to emerge, chastened yet mostly unscathed, as the heroine of her own story.

L. H. Akgulian is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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