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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lost Objects


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Something strange is happening to me. Over the past couple of months, members of my family and I have become the human equivalent of St. Anthony’s medallions, which according to Catholic lore bring the wearer the power to find lost objects through the intercession of that patron saint. This is admittedly a weird metaphor for me, a believing Jew and rabbi, to use about myself. Yet, how else to explain my eerily recurrent experience? Let me illustrate.

First, while with me at a local supermarket, my youngest daughter saw that a man using the store’s ATM had left behind a twenty dollar bill in the cash dispenser. We ran after him to return the bill, and I refused his offer to give my daughter the money as a gesture of his gratitude. Then some time later, after eating ice cream in a restaurant with that same daughter, I noticed that the waitress had forgotten to charge us for an item. I pointed this out to her and she thankfully corrected our bill. Most recently, after returning from a shopping trip, I realized that the cashier had accidentally placed a bracelet lying on the store counter in my bag with the items I had purchased. I went back the next day to return the item to the owner of the store.

I wonder: has God granted me, of all people, the power to find and return the lost possessions of others? I’m the guy who is still late to meetings because I leave my car keys in places no archaeologist could unearth. Upon more critical self reflection, I am forced to admit that my role as finder of lost things possesses none of the spiritual significance or glamour that I might attach to it. Stuff happens, and lost stuff is thrown into that liminal space between our awareness and our sleepy distraction quite randomly and naturally. Finding what is lost is just as random, from my perspective: a confluence of luck, looking around, and location.

Nonetheless, a lucky streak of three “finds” gives me pause to consider what it teaches me. My faith and moral code compelled me in all three instances to return what I found or to make good on what was missing. However, some –perhaps many- people would take that lost property, justifying their behavior with the technical, letter-of-the-law equivalent of finders-keepers-losers-weepers: if you are too irresponsible or spacey to hold onto your property and I find it, it becomes mine. Why should I not benefit from your lack of attentiveness and bad luck, especially since, technically, I did not steal what belonged to you?

I am neither an expert in the study of law nor the study of ethics, but I know when I am touching the edges of the murky realm of borderline dishonesty. This is behavior that cannot definitively be called theft and that is not as blatantly dishonest as the argument that stealing is only stealing if you get caught. Yet, the logic of this version of finders-keepers is equally dangerous because of the dog-eat-dog impulses underlying it, and the rationales we use to salve our consciences when we act upon those impulses. If I can rationalize taking your lost things because of your frailty or temporary disability I will have no problem with many other instances in which I actively benefit from your bad luck or misfortune. This kind of thinking finds its ugliest cultural expression in the insidious and elitist claim that if I have power and wealth and you don’t, each of us deserves exactly what he or she gets. This kind of thinking is nothing new, having plagued haves and have nots alike for millennia.

We will need to leave the massive overhaul of society’s institutionalized selfishness to our new president and his advisors. However, since all politics is local and personal, that transformation will have to begin with how we treat one another. Charity may begin at home, but so do meanness and exploitation. As we begin a painful period of national recovery and healing, our greatest challenge as individuals, person-to-person, will be this: to have the honesty to recognize when we are giving a pass to bad behavior, no matter how good we may want to make it feel, and to have the courage to act on our noblest, not our nastiest, impulses.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

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