Once upon a time (this week on Wednesday to be exact), in a city among the hills (Atlanta), a part-time cashier spotted an envelope just off the curb of the park-and-ride deck at the international terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Puzzled, the cashier picked up the envelope and found it stuffed with $7,000 in cold hard cash (that’s 70 $100 bills to be exact). Unbeknownst to her, the money belonged to a foot doctor about to board a flight to an exotic land known as Costa Rica. The good doctor, who hailed from a neighboring territory called Alabama, was completely unaware of his loss.
The cashier faced a dilemma of the moral variety. She could embrace the luck life handed her and keep the wad of cash or she could turn the money over to the proper authorities who would be able to find its rightful owner. She could indulge her ego and keep the find with, what author David Richo called, “passive indifference” toward the rightful owner, or she could take selfless, compassionate action that, according to Richo, is “suffused with a kindly feeling with no sense of grasping” and hand the money over to police. In a nut shell, she could be self-serving or mindful.
The cashier resolved the dilemma almost instantly and effortlessly. She decided to be mindful. She decided to focus her awareness on the present moment and, without much thought, let go of the societal expectations and acculturation that subconsciously influences many of us in the Western world to keep such bountiful finds for ourselves. The cashier took independent action based on, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would describe as, “purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
She showed the envelope and its contents to a shuttle driver, and the two turned the envelope over to authorities.
“I could’ve kept the money but I didn’t do that,” the cashier told the scribe (reporter) who would later retell the cashier’s tale of mindfulness to a mass, television audience. “I’m an honest citizen, I’m a taxpayer, and I believe in doing the right thing.”
The scribe questioned this noble act. A random act of kindness sparked by independent thinking in a day and age when people, according to Csikszentmihalyi, typically “follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question,” relinquishing personal consciousness and mindful awareness in order to be “helpless playthings of impersonal forces?” That can’t be right.
The way Western society sees it, mindful awareness is reserved for Buddhist monks and yogis while independent, conscious thinking is reserved for visionaries (millionaires) who build gadgets and gizmos and websites that keep us nauseously connected and engaged with one another in virtual, online communities where a clear sense of purpose is optional.
A part-time cashier carving out a humble existence in the suburbs of Atlanta choosing to emancipate herself from cultural expectations and social mores that encourage selfish action? That’s an anomaly that must be questioned, the scribe, her producer, and her camera guy probably thought. Something else, they probably figured, drove the cashier to turn the money in so, naturally, the scribe injected fear and doubt into the tale’s retelling in an indirect sort of way.
Had the cashier’s meritorious inclination been self-serving, the scribe implied in her report, the watchful eye (security camera) of an ever-present employer would have turned a Samaritan’s story into a tale of crime and punishment brought on by greed and avarice.
After pouring through the incident report filed with the Atlanta Police Department, the scribe contacted the good doctor, who was reunited with his stash of cash seven days after the loss. The scribe wanted to question the goodness of the good doctor… is he going to give the cashier a reward for her honesty or what? I mean, he should, right? That’s the way things have to play out. A good deed should be rewarded just like in the movies because that’s what Western culture teaches us. Why do a good deed if there’s no personal benefit to it?
Alas, the scribe was told that the doctor was too busy treating patients with their foot problems to chat with her that day, and the scribe’s retelling of the cashier’s mindful act ends there. But the cashier’s story doesn’t.
There was a reward for the cashier. It was internal.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, “the most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders.”
Deep down, the cashier felt she did what she considers “the right thing” and this personal belief is visible in her countenance. The only recompense she said that she now seeks is to have the kind act returned someday in her moment of need.
“Hopefully, if that ever happened to me,” she told the scribe, a similarly mindful person “will turn my money in too.”
Read other posts by Aimee C. Juarez