Let’s talk about the conscience, a fascinating part of the human psyche. It separates us from the animals, who do not have feelings of regret or guilt, or feelings of any kind, really, which is why they don’t complain when you kick them.
My conscience, whose name is Conscience, is an imperious, condescending being who lives in the back of my brain. He hates his neighbors, Frivolity and Gluttony, who cause him no end of trouble. Conscience is Mr. Wilson to Frivolity and Gluttony’s Dennis the Menace. Conscience is always making irate phone calls to me on the order of, “Have you seen the credit card bills from Frivolity’s last trip to New York?” and “Look what Gluttony did to that buffet table!”
The thing is, Conscience has only himself to blame, because he is often lazy in his duties, not joining the discussion until I am well into the planning stages. For example, a few weeks ago I was at Wal-Mart when I realized I needed some Chapstick. I located the Chapstick display, found what I needed, and was walking toward the checkout when it occurred to me: This Chapstick is tiny and this store is huge. I could very easily slip it into my pocket with my left hand, buy my other items with my right hand (I’m ambidextrous), and leave without paying for the Chapstick. In all likelihood, I would not be caught. Why don’t I do that…?
Then Conscience came running up, breathless, and said, “Wait, what? What are you thinking about doing?” I explained it to him, and with great incredulity, he said, “No, you can’t steal the Chapstick, you moron. It’s WRONG, remember?” And I realized, oh, yeah, stealing is WRONG. So I didn’t do it. But how did I get so far in the thought process before Conscience showed up? Was he out battling Lust or Pride, or was he just sitting in the back of my mind, reading a magazine?
Then there’s the time my sister was in a car accident that was not her fault, for which she received a handsome insurance settlement and some additional money for medical bills. In all, she came out ahead of the game by quite a wide margin. So I began to wish someone would crash into my car — not causing me any permanent or unbearably painful injury, but enough to where I’d need some medical attention and, thus, some pain-and-suffering money from the at-fault party. And of course they’d need to total my car, too, which shouldn’t be hard, because it’s a Hyundai. You can total a Hyundai just by slamming the door.
But no one would run into me. I was driving flawlessly — had to make sure there was no chance of the accident being my fault — and the bad drivers around me were somehow missing me. I’d come upon the scene of an accident and think, “Wow, that could have been me. If only I’d left the house sooner…!”
And so I began to wonder how I could cause an accident while still making it technically the other driver’s fault. That’s when Conscience FINALLY came in. I don’t know where he’d been, but he sure was livid when he heard what I’d been discussing behind his back. “They have a name for what you’re planning,” Conscience said to me as he glared at Greed and Manipulation, who shuffled their feet and looked at the floor. “It’s called INSURANCE FRAUD. You would GO TO JAIL.” And I thought, oh, yeah, you’re right. Never mind, then.
The trouble with ethics is that some things are only wrong MOST of the time. If I had needed to steal that Chapstick to feed my sister’s starving family, for example, I would have felt OK about it. In theory, stealing is wrong. In theory. In theory, democracy works. And then Nikki McKibbin makes it to the final four in “American Idol” and we realize democracy is a failure. Lots of things work “in theory.”
All of which is my way of explaining, Your Honor, that I didn’t REALIZE I had slipped the Chapstick into my pocket. I was planning to pay for it, I swear. Believe me, my conscience would never let me lie to you.
One of my favorite activities is to anthropomorphize things. I do it with movies all the time, ordering the movie to quit what it's doing, or to quiet down a little, or to please show a little respect, there are ladies present, for crying out loud.
Both of the conscience stories are 100 percent true, by the way, though the final paragraph suggesting I DID take the Chapstick is fictional.
Fun fact: The word "ambidextrous" was wedged into this column because my main squeeze at the time had said, "Hey, why don't you insert a random word of my choosing into your column as a secret message of love and affection to me!," and "ambidextrous" was the word chosen. So there you have it.