You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take. There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job. A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does. But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.
First test you make a B. A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that. Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer. The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test. You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.
You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up. You end up with a B plus. They make As again. They’re contacted by job recruiters. You are not. Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack. You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof. Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.
You do what you have to. You join them. You make your A. You get the job. You’re financially independent and so happy about that. You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job. Your family is happy. No regrets. You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.
Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy. Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own. You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve. One misstep and they could be fired. They know that. You know that. At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand. You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood. However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job. You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week. You have your integrity. You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.
When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids? You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing? You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes. They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds. Or were they really misdeeds? You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.
We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance. Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision. Choosing not to cheat is the tough one. However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage. What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is? It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.
Let’s be honest. What we all want is to be successful. Society puts pressure on us to be successful. In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things. A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars. No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices. An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any. Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money. Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.
It’s time for me to come clean. I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device. At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses. I branched out and began playing other players online. I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage. There was one guy I liked to play. We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time. Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points. I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know. These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram). I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No. Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”
Whatever. I knew he was cheating. It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it. He started beating me. It made me mad. I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.
So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers. I started to beat him again. And it felt good. I didn’t feel guilty about it. If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.
The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way. There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.
Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves. We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.
So now we come to Lance Armstrong. Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah. I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be. The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation. You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake. But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous. The only thing at stake was my own vanity.
I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating. Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie. It’s not noble or right. It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain. The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it. The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.
To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior. His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished. But I don’t hate him either. I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human. Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.