Dad, Peggy, and morality

For most of my years under his roof, my father did building maintenance and remodeling for a wealthy businessman who was a First Baptist deacon and Lions Club member. Dad worked 55-plus hours a week for this man for low pay, no sick leave, and a five day a year vacation, while feeling trapped in his job because of my mother’s unwillingness to leave the small town where we lived. When I was in junior high, a hardware store owner offered my father kickbacks for giving him his boss’s business. Dad told his boss of it and wouldn’t shop there anymore. The more I came to know and despise his boss, the less respect I had for my father’s ethics.

Then I married a woman with that same degree of unyielding morality. Her Catholic employer’s public commitment to treating everyone with Christ-inspired fairness and compassion often runs counter to how it behaves behind the scenes. If I had worked for this hospital for many years, and it had shorted my paycheck more than half the time, I would have kept my mouth shut when the day came that it overpaid me by $1,500. “Ah,” you say, “but you’re an atheist, and therefore have no compunction against doing any lowdown thing.” While it is true that I spend my every waking moment raping dogs and kicking women, Peggy’s an atheist too, so go figure.

A major difference between Peggy and my father on the one hand and me on the other, is that I’m unaware that either of them ever struggled over issues of morality because the right direction was always obvious to them. This leads (or led in the case of my deceased father) to a consistency in their behavior that I often lack. They would say I rationalize, and they would sometimes be right, but the result of my uncertainty is that I am reachable whereas people whose morality is instinctual often are not. Peggy didn’t struggle for years before deciding that gay marriage was wrong or that capital punishment was right, whereas I switched back and forth repeatedly. Sometimes, I would agree with her that we should consider a return to public executions, and sometimes I would agree with her that gay marriage was oxymoronic, but then I would reverse my positions. Through all my inconsistency, she never wavered, and I would envy her that because, after all, isn’t consistency a mark of intelligence and maturity, and inconsistency the opposite?

Likewise, in regard to religion, Peggy never wavered. She believed as a child, but when she became a young adult, it dawned on her that she no longer believed, and she never looked back, whereas I went back and forth through four decades and three churches (not counting the Unitarian) before I made peace with the fact that I really and truly did not, and never would, believe in God.

I eventually lost my envy of people like Peggy and my father because even if my struggling means that I look flaky and am prone to rationalization, it also means that I am less dogmatic, tend to learn more through studying issues, and am better able to change my thinking. Because Peggy’s morality is instinctual, she isn’t prone to reflecting upon matters of right and wrong; she isn’t given to studying them; and she dismisses contrary opinions like water off a ducks back. For instance, I finally came down on the side of gay marriage because I concluded that it doesn’t matter what makes people gay or that marriage has historically been for heterosexuals only; it only matters that society treats everyone compassionately and equally. As I see it, I progressed beyond her on this issue because while I was learning and reflecting, she remained stuck on two thoughts only, thoughts which are so obvious (regardless of their accuracy) that they surely occurred to her within a minute of first hearing about gay marriage: homosexuality is an evolutionary mistake; and that which has been the practice always and everywhere should continue to be the practice always and everywhere.*

In the final analysis, people like myself are probably more prone to evil than people like Peggy and my father because our lack of a strict moral code really does make it appallingly easy for us to rationalize, and because, far from honoring either the law or traditional morality, we often consider obedience undesirable. Peggy doesn’t always respect the law, but she nearly always obeys it even when she disagrees with it, that is unless she thinks its evil. Her heroes are people who live quiet lives, perform unheralded acts of goodness, obey the law, and honor tradition. My heroes are Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, none of whom Peggy has the least interest in, and who my government and millions of my fellow citizens would like to draw-and-quarter.

One thing for sure is that I think a lot more about the ethical implications of Peggy’s actions than she does about my own due to her tendency to instantly classify everything I do as morally good, morally bad, or morally indifferent, and to hold to that opinion forever come hell or high water. In my eyes, she’s something of a mule, and in her eyes, I sometimes fall short of being what a good man should be. Herein lies much of the charm of our marriage, at least for me. Having a spouse is like having an exotic animal. It gives a person the chance to observe an interesting creature whose life is—like all our lives—a shooting star, from up close and personal for many decades before one of you falls alone into the bottomless pit of eternity. 

The photo of Peggy and my father was taken July 9, 1994, and he died on the 12th. He loved her like a daughter, and she deserved it. Naturally, she never questioned whether taking this troubled man into her home was the right thing to do.

*Peggy read this after it was posted, and said my implication that she regards homosexuality and/or homosexual marriage as a moral issue was incorrect. Rather, she regards homosexuality as an inescapable way of being, and she supports complete equality for homosexuals except when it comes to using the word marriage to describe their unions. As I see it, gay marriage is very much a moral issue, and I can't even imagine how, to her, it could not be, but such is the gulf between us on many issues.