(RNS) I am sweating on the treadmill when a young man walks onto the patio outside my window, sits at a table and spreads out his drug paraphernalia.
He folds a piece of white paper to form a work surface. He measures a brown, leafy substance onto the paper, then, using a subway fare card, mixes in a white powder.
Next he puts half of his pile into a cigarette paper and carefully rolls it into cylinder shape. Now he rolls the other half. Both joints go into a plastic medicine bottle.
Off he goes down a stairway, pausing to light up, then on to his apartment in an adjacent building.
All this in full view of 11 floors of apartments and two exercisers in the fitness room. He looks my way from time to time to make sure I am watching.
It strikes me that he has made two calculations. The legal calculation is that he won’t get caught, and if he did get caught in a system that pays little attention to marijuana use, he would skate. Actions that have no consequences soon become routine.
The moral calculation is that not a single one of the people around him matters at all. The children who might be watching his joint-rolling — who cares? The people who are stretching to make rent payments here in the belief that this is a safe haven — who cares? His own family nearby trying to help him grow up — who cares? His own health and character — who cares?
This is the casual face of anomie, the breakdown of moral guidance and resulting alienation from society. It also has elements of narcissistic personality disorder.
So what? It’s his life to ruin. Yes, I see that. But in watching his legal and moral calculations, I am seeing the dysfunction of our national political leadership, where saying anything is OK, true or not, helpful or not, if it positions oneself for gain. I am seeing the corruption of many corporate systems, where whatever doesn’t actually land you in jail is OK, where giant companies make overseas acquisitions in order to evade taxes at home.
I am seeing the increasingly shrill and outlandish voices of the religious right, who sense they are losing the culture wars and want to shriek loudly as they go down.
I am seeing companies get regulatory approval for mergers by promising not to lay off employees or to engage in anti-competitive practices and then break those promises as bad for profits.
I am seeing athletes dope themselves and then deny and deny and deny; get caught, and skulk away. I am seeing parents game systems for the benefit of their children, without regard to social impact, like the well-heeled parent who bullied my son’s school into ignoring his daughter’s brazen cheating.
In a way, this young man making joints is the poster child for a nation that is losing its way. Freedom cannot survive such disregard for the rights of others. Democracy cannot survive such delusions of self-importance.
The ethical calculations we should be making are what benefits the other: Does my behavior bring light or darkness to the world we share; am I making healthy, if inconvenient, choices, because in the end healthy choices build up society?
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/MG END EHRICH