Yesterday, I was walking into town after lunch to get a cup of coffee and read for a little while. I’d finished all my writing work for the day, and just found out I’m going to graduate with a first-class degree. The sun was shining and I was in a great mood.
Suddenly, something caught my eye. It almost blended into the brickwork, which was abnormally light. I bent down to inspect it further. It was a thick roll of money, secured with two flimsy elastic bands, one green and one blue. It was comprised of mainly £20 notes and a couple of tenners. I picked it up and looked at it. I didn’t count it, but it must have been a couple of hundred pounds easily.
Instantly, I thought about taking it. Take it. Just take it. Put it in your pocket and walk away. Most people would. Don’t be a sap. I thought of my bank balance, painfully low after a year of student living, groaning under the strain of months without a proper income. I immediately started justifying why I was a far more deserving recipient of this money than whoever had lost it. Memories of having lost wallets and money in the past came zooming to the forefront of my mind: in a way, I’d earned this. Perhaps this was some kind of celestial reward for doing so well in my degree – for being a good person.
I must have stood there with the money in my hand for a good minute or so. Then I looked around, noticed I was outside a block of retirement flats, and spotted a window cleaner on the far side of the building. I shouted up to him.
“Hey mate, could you check if you’ve lost any money? I’ve just found some on the floor outside.”
He asked if it was in rubber bands, without seeing the bundle I was holding. I replied yes. He said he was pretty sure it belonged to the old lady who’d just paid him – he’d seen her purse, and it was filled with little rolls of cash. It must have fallen out as she’d put her purse back in her little old lady bag. She’d just got a taxi into town, he said, and wasn’t in.
So, I went to the front of the flats, about to start ringing buzzers randomly. Fortuitously, an old lady came out, smartly dressed in cropped trousers and a cream cardigan. She reminded me of my own grandma – ready to bustle around for another busy day, always on the ball, always with a mission. I explained the situation, went upstairs with her, wrote a note, left my phone number in case they needed to contact me, stuck the roll of cash into an envelope and posted it through her letterbox.
The clink of metal as the letterbox slammed shut snapped me out of my daze. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I thanked the old lady who’d helped me, and hurriedly walked down the stairs and into the sunlight.
I realise now what that weight was: relief. Relief that, in that moment, I did the right thing. We all have these moments stretching out in front of us, every day – tiny decisions to make the world that little better or little bit worse. And our actions create ripples, and those ripples bounce off each other. And so our actions do have meaning. It matters that we all try to do the right thing. Nihilism is not the answer.
I’m not a saint. I’m not writing this to shove in everyone’s face how awesome I am. I’m telling you this because I was so, so tempted to pocket the cash and walk away. I’m selfish. I can be mean, vindictive and jealous. I’ve got a short temper. I’m a human, and that means I’m absolutely jammed full of flaws and biases and inconsistencies. Carrying that weight around, accepting our weakness, and still trying to be good – that takes guts. In the same way that bravery isn’t true bravery if you’re not scared in the first place, I don’t know if doing the right thing is that impressive if the wrong, easy, self-gratifying option never occurs to you.
Later that evening, I got a phone call from a landline – a rare occurrence these days. I answered. It was an old man – I can’t even remember his name now. I think it was Lionel. He said he looks after the lady who’s money I’d returned, and he himself is in his late 70s. She’s in her 90s and extremely frail. She gets confused sometimes. He thanked me profusely for returning the money. He told me I was a credit to my parents, and that it was so wonderful for him to know that there were young people out there who would do the right thing given the chance.
I felt so ashamed I’d considered taking it, even for a second. I thought about how she must have felt when she realised she’d dropped the money. Probably confused, ashamed, embarassed. Maybe that was her whole grocery budget for the month. To hear that man’s earnest, reedy old voice, his shortness of breath – it broke me. He tried to offer me some money as a reward. There was no way on this planet I was ever going to take it. I thanked him for the call, and hung up the phone. My eyes were streaming. I’m not ashamed to tell you that.
I went to bed last night feeling happy and proud. To be honest, as I drifted off to sleep, I wasn’t thinking about the fact I’d managed, after four long years of stress and study, to secure a first in my degree. I was thinking about the old couple. I was thinking about morality and our own little struggles with it. But mostly, I was thinking about how glad I was I hadn’t pocketed the money and walked away.