Years ago, when I was working for a small litigation software company in New York City, I was leaving the office one day when I thought I heard someone shout my name from far away. I stopped in the building lobby and looked around, but I didn’t see anyone and couldn’t imagine why somebody would be calling for me. So I continued on my way and was just about to reach the building’s front door when I heard the muffled shout again, coming from the mezzanine above the escalator I’d just taken, along with the sound of pounding footsteps. A figure finally came into view, running down the escalator. It was my co-worker James. “Did the servers crash?” I asked when he finally reached me.
“No,” he said, breathless, grabbing his knees. He regained his composure and began digging around in his pocket, finally pulling out his wallet and handing me a single dollar bill. “The soda machine before,” he sputtered.
The soda machine. Several hours earlier, he’d asked me for a dollar to buy a soda, and I had handed one over. I’d completely forgotten about it, and he could have too for all I cared. After all, we’re both software developers, allegedly well paid — what’s a dollar to either of us? But I guess he takes great pride in being the kind of person who pays back every single dollar he ever borrows. I could see the pride on his face. “Thanks,” I said, shrugging and turning away, shoving the dollar bill in my pocket.
He was proud of the way he’d handled this, but I found his obvious pride irritating. It occurred to me at this moment that I was beginning to dislike James more and more as I got to know him better. We didn’t know each other very well, but I had picked up from our workplace conversations that he was a rigidly moral person, a churchgoer, and a joyless, highly responsible software developer. He was going to law school at night, paid for by our company’s generous employee education program, and I knew this meant a lot to him. We had recently been talking together about a workplace problem that I thought we should confront our boss about, but he declined to join me in speaking up. “I’m not going to make waves,” he said. “They’re paying for my law degree.”
We each have our own moral codes. I’m the kind of person who will always speak up at work if I see a problem, even when I know it won’t help my own standing in the company. That’s what I’m proud of. James, I guess, was proud to be the kind of person who always pays back every single dollar he borrows.
But that doesn’t impress me very much. i think it would impress a lot of people, but I like to look for a different indicator of a person’s character. What would really impress me is if I loaned a co-worker a dollar, or ten dollars or twenty dollars … and the person never paid it back, and never mentioned it again.
This would impress the hell out of me, because it would mean this person is my friend. We share stuff. We don’t worry about ten dollars or twenty dollars; our friendship is worth more than that, and life is too short to pass small change back and forth between friends. If this ever happened between me and a co-worker at my job, I’d have no doubt that I could hit this person up for a sawbuck or two any time in return, and it would be all smiles. Don’t worry about it! That’s the kind of relationship I like to have with people I see every day.
What James showed me, when he came running down the office building lobby shouting my name, nearly knocking over little old ladies as he lunged for the escalator, was that I was not his friend. Rather, I was his potential opponent. I stood in perpetual judgement of him, which meant that he stood in perpetual judgement of me too.
This was several years ago. I’ve lost touch with James, but I bet he’s a practicing lawyer today. He’s probably damn good at it; he was a smart guy. But I try to live by a different code of moral law, and I wonder if he understands this code of law at all.
NOTE: In response to the comments below, an update to this blog post was published a week later.