In my early teens, I had a moment when I stood at the crossroads between honesty and cowardice. Mom was in the kitchen making dinner. The mouthwatering aroma of frying chicken wafted through our house, along with the alluring scents of onion and freshly chopped celery. I was starving.
Like a beckoning cartoon finger, the smell of that chicken lured me into the kitchen. Mom was busy, back to the door. Afternoon light brightened the small room, slicked the porcelain sink, seemed to cast an aromatic mist into the air. On the counter set a platter, laid with paper towels, and heaped with fried chicken. There was one oddly shaped morsel tucked near the edge, golden and crispy. Unable to resist, knowing well the rule about nibbling—don’t do it—I snatched that alluring bit and munched it away, silently.
I left the kitchen, much like a sneak thief, passing my younger brother Robert on the way in, no doubt also drawn by the smell of fried chicken. He had that long-faced, hungry look and since he was a growing boy, I knew he was ravenous too. Feeling somewhat mollified by the chicken piece, I was halfway up the stairs when my Mom’s voice cracked like a whip at Robert, accusing him of sneaking chicken. I froze, ashamed of myself, embarrassed, and feeling bad for my brother.
Standing paralyzed on the stairs, in a warm rain of embarrassment, I imagined the startled look of surprise on his face. As a boy, Robert was very sensitive, his feelings easily hurt, and a raised voice would bring tears to his eyes. When she was angry, Mom’s voice snapped like frozen ice under pressure. Being plunged into the icy waters of her anger was no swim in the tropics. Robert took the lashing and didn’t say a word, no denial, no defense. Mom’s excoriating voice quieted. I guessed my brother left the kitchen, and I stood rooted on the stairs, damnably silent.
To this day, my silence during that moment still haunts me.
Such moments may not be the defining knell of one’s character. While they ultimately may be of no consequences, or of such minor consequence, we barely hear the ding of error. Nevertheless, they leave a mark on the conscience and they occur more often than we probably care to admit. It is unpleasant to look in the mirror of one’s soul and see blemishes on the silver. We move on, putting such moments of weakness behind us and we are soon overwhelmed with all the mundane activities of adult life, and sometimes we do not give space to the major decisions of conscience. We turn away from someone in need, for example, or refuse to get involved when we witness a wrong or an act of harm. We walk on, pretending like we didn’t see a thing or hear anything, or that we misinterpreted or even imagined what we did see or hear. We may not have had a hand in the unfortunate action, but we remain silent when we should speak up, not only for ourselves but for others too. We all may have our moment on the stairs when stepping up or stepping down can make a difference. But such moments are not necessarily black and white; they must be tempered with judgment.
That day taught me to always step up to the mark when I’ve done something wrong. It is better to burn a short time in the crucible of shame and then, in the days that come after, be able to face yourself with grace.