Once, I went into a little shop to buy a box of popcorn. When the cashier gave me my change, I registered that it was $5.00 more than I was expecting. At first, I assumed that I was probably wrong (math is not my forte), but as I walked away, I added it up and realized that I actually did get $5.00 more than I had coming to me.
Should I go back and return the extra money, I asked myself. I knew I should, but I’ve got to hurry to where I’m going, I reasoned, and it’s only $5.00 and nobody will ever know the difference, so I just pocketed my windfall and went on with what I was doing.
Honestly, though, it felt a bit shady. Even if it wasn’t the heaviest burden of guilt I ever bore, it stuck in my mind that I’d cheated and I think about that sometimes when a cashier hands me my change.
Such a little thing, right? Why make a big deal of it, you say! It’s not like you robbed a bank! Let it go!
Granted, like I said, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever done, but this episode makes a point for me. Our little lies, tiny compromises, and petty unkindness do matter, often more than we realize, and at times we don’t see their negative effect or at least not right away or before they have gained in size and strength. When I didn’t return the money, I easily brushed it off. I would not have imagined that all this time later I’d occasionally think a little less of myself, knowing I’d cheated someone (even if they were entirely ignorant about it).
This episode was pretty much just about me, but consider another situation, one between two people. You make an insensitive remark to someone or uncharitably question their motives, perhaps during a tense discussion. It seems pretty minor. Maybe in your mind you wonder a bit how that person felt, but he or she said nothing and just let the matter drop, so you ignored it too.
But, try flipping it around and remember when you were on the receiving end of the same thing. It looks a bit different from that angle, doesn’t it? You dismissed it as too trivial to make a fuss about, but wasn’t it a bit hurtful also? Did a little resentment linger there? Did you think a little less of him or her, not want to trust them again, or not fully?
That is my point. In the scheme of things, it’s pretty small, but there is a guardedness that can become a wedge between people after something like this. A subtle distancing creeps in. You’re a little aloof, not enough for them to notice perhaps, but you know you’re doing it. Maybe, just within yourself, you wonder if they don’t like you as much as you thought or if you trusted them too much. Little doubts creep into your relationship. Judgments creep in too because the small episode, when unresolved, can make you think there is a character flaw there that is larger than it really is.
Of course, you have to pick your battles and you have to let some things in life just roll off, but you have to know as well when you can’t afford to do that. It doesn’t always follow that because something is comparatively small that you can just let it ride. It often exacts a cost just the same.
My personal solution to this is one suggested to me years ago by a friend, to make sure to “keep short accounts with others.” That is, to settle things quickly before they have the chance to curdle and fester inside. Clear the air of any misunderstanding as fast as you can, make your apologies as you need, and accept those coming to you, because when it is done and over with, you’ll feel the relief that comes and the sense of a renewed relationship that you would have missed had you let that issue linger in the shadow.
That would have been what to do about the excess change I got. It would have felt better to have ended the issue right away and given the money right back. I know this because there was another time I got $10.00 extra and I gave it back as soon as I realized the error, which not only felt better, but didn’t jab at my conscience at all.