Imagine one night walking back from your workplace you spot a suitcase in the middle of an alleyway.
“How could someone leave their suitcase here?” You ask puzzled. You start walking the around the corner of the building looking for the owner, but no one is around as it’s late at night.
You decide to take the suitcase with you and report it to the police department in the morning. A glaring detail strikes you between the eyes: the case is unlocked.
Back at your house, you’re tempted to look inside, but you resist the temptation.
As you try to sleep, you have a nagging curiosity that will not abate.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” you ask yourself.
You open the suitcase to find that it’s filled with money. Your visceral reaction is one of shock and apprehension. Not sure of what make of the situation, you close the top and set it aside.
“Why did I pick this up?” You ask yourself.
On the T.V; there’s a news report of a police raid near where you first saw the suitcase.
“We’re told tonight police have confiscated an unconfirmed sum of money from a drug cartel ring feeding a large operation. Seven men have been arrested and taken into custody. We’ll have more details on the case half past the hour. Stay tuned.”
A surge of anxiety fills your body. “Could this money have been somehow connected to the news report?”
You’re insistent on returning the money right away, but then you remembered a detail that you wish you didn’t.
Your close friend’s daughter Sarah has been battling leukemia for some time. Their family has nearly spent all their money on chemotherapy treatment for her, and suddenly you have obtained close to what appears to be fifty thousand dollars.
Suddenly, your volition could determine the outcome of another person’s life. A battle ensues as you consider the possibility of keeping money that could have been associated with the crime to help your friends’ daughter. Society tells you must act lawfully.
“This is highly illegal; I am putting myself at huge risk. I love Sarah very much, but I’m not a criminal. My life would be over if I got caught.”
You repeat the ethical banter to yourself over and over, like a broken tape recorder, but there is an undeniable feeling that is contradicting your rationalism.
Suddenly, your life flashes before your eyes. Everything you know and everyone you love is all up in the air. You wonder whether you could live without all of life’s pleasure’s, whether you could bear the mark of society on your back for the rest of your life. For the first time, the norms that have governed your life are being overridden by duty to a knowing that is superior to your insight.
There is no guarantee of Sarah’s condition with your potential contribution, nor are there guarantees you would get off with failing to report the money. However, you would rather risk resignation from society than fail to act for the sake of another person, and live with regret for the rest of your life.
How does this unlikely situation speak about the relationship between being human and living as a human being?
In moments of distress, when our world seems to be falling around us, we discover what truly matters in our lives, namely love and human connection.
We place supreme importance on labels and ideas in our society; social status, job titles, degrees, awards, shiny emblems, and golden reputations. Take away all of this and who are we? They matter temporarily. These social constructions including law and ethics serve to facilitate the functioning of society but are nonetheless impervious.
I’m not suggesting you regard laws as arbitrary so you can break them. Instead, imagine a hypothetical situation like the one I described in which your sense of attachments and reputation are in jeopardy; a case you knew to act virtuously meant to break the law or a social norm.
If you might lose everything besides your life, what would be left for you to care about?
The answer should be straightforward and minimal. We often make our lives unnecessarily complicated and place prerequisites for our happiness, when we only genuinely care about the people close to us.
Expanding our minds beyond socially constructed abstractions doesn’t necessarily need to involve ‘social death.’
For this article, I hope the analogy of law with other social constructions helps us break free of unnecessary clutter that doesn’t serve our happiness or that of others. On a deeper level, we can even feel the extension of that love and concern for acquaintances and strangers.
Self-resignation is scary for us because defining our lives according to what we already know is comforting, yet the process of stripping away what isn’t conducive to our lives any longer gives us the opportunity to direct less attention towards self-pursuit and more energy towards the well-being of others.