Money from heaven or the wages of sin?

Yesterday, I received a fairly substantial check from the good people at USAA insurance for a claim I filed over some jewelry belonging to my wife, which had come up missing after our big move from Chicago to San Francisco. Included among the lost pieces was my wife’s wedding ring. USAA was quick to cut a check, calling me a “stellar client.” Twenty-eight years I have been with them. I received the money in five days.

Here’s the kicker. The day before getting paid, on a whim, I’d elected to dig deeper into one of our still-unpacked boxes holding bric-a-brac, stationary and innocuous office supplies. And lo and behold, there it was: the lost treasure. Mind you, we had checked this box at least three times looking for those jewels. Obviously not hard enough.

Thus, I found myself in possession of both the jewelry and not an insignificant sum of money. In my shoes, I’m pretty certain most of you would count your blessings and return the money to the insurance company. Maybe not all of you. But most.

And I did return the money.

However, I would be lying if I said the decision came easy. I wrestled with the idea of keeping the cash. After all, I have a shit-ton of bills relating to my new life in the most expensive city in the United States. I also kept thinking about the premiums I’d paid USAA over the last 28 years –for cars, homes and personal property- all without ever filing a claim. Maybe this windfall was like a dividend check for all those investments?

Or stealing. Or lying. Or insurance fraud.

Yet, it wasn’t fear of reprisals that ultimately sealed my decision. I knew I wasn’t going to get caught. When I’d filed the claim USAA said my years of being a “model client” meant there would be no investigation.

In the end I couldn’t live with the bad behavior. I have lived with bad behavior and let me tell you it is a dreadful weight. It eats at your self worth, goading you into dark corners and evermore ugliness. I know this from experience. And yet I was still tempted. Insanity!

So why was the devil on my shoulder trying to rationalize keeping the money? I know right from wrong. And keeping the money would have been wrong. If I’m too dense to see that for myself then as a father of three young girls I need to set an example for them. Wrongfully keeping this money was a line I just couldn’t cross. Thank God.

First off, I know I should be writing about advertising, media and popular culture but this heinous story has gripped me since day one. In a very real way I need to write about it just to get through it. Before anything else, I’m a human being and parent. I need to believe most people are good deep down, not the other way around. What comes next is not an expected opinion (I’ve already had all of those) but a consideration of how and why so many men of leadership saw nothing, heard nothing and said nothing…

There is a moment in the Penn State scandal that, for me, crystallizes 15+ years of this ugly and awful affair: the evening in 2002 when Mike McQueary happened upon Jerry Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy. In the worst sense of the phrase it was a “defining moment.” For had McQueary done the right thing, stopping the rape and alerting the authorities, a monster would have been caught. Instead McQueary ran away and told his father, beginning what would become an epic fail by the leadership at Penn State University.

Why did McQueary act (or not act) the way he did? Many have speculated it was cowardice or fear. But what was he scared of: A naked old man? Losing his job? Upsetting the integrity of his beloved Penn State program? These are some of the accusations being levied at Mike McQueary but I don’t think any of them are correct. Reasonable assumptions. But at that moment nothing was reasonable. My theory: when McQueary saw what he saw all reason was lost. Witnessing an old man he knew and respected (and maybe even loved), hunched over naked, violating a little boy was simply too much information, in effect crashing his hard drive. McQueary was paralyzed. The primal instincts of fight or flight took hold and he chose, alas, to flee.

Mike McQueary. What was he thinking?

As suggested by many reporters and commentators (myself included) he should have pulled the boy away and beat the hell out of Sandusky. In his shoes, they would have. But as I think about it, I wonder…

True, in movies and television the coward runs and the hero fights. While the karate teacher might tell the pupil never to use his deadly force we are only satisfied when the student kicks some ass. In real life it seldom plays out that way. For example, when kidnapped baseball player, Wilson Ramos was rescued last week he claims to have “hid under a bed.” Do we call Ramos –a strong, young athlete- a coward for cowering? No.

None of this is to suggest McQueary is or isn’t a coward. Just that his fleeing is understandable. Any one of us might have done the same thing. I can only hope I would have taken out my cell phone and called 911.

Back to that sickening moment in the showers… Is it possible McQueary couldn’t believe his own eyes? Then likewise his father, upon being told, couldn’t believe it either? When someone reports the unbelievable we usually question the reporter. It was dark in there? Were you drinking? By the time the story got to Grandpa Paterno it might as well have been about aliens. Thus anal rape became “horsing around.”

Jerry Sandusky arrested…finally.

Believing a trusted friend, a beloved priest, or a respected football coach could do such a thing requires more than courage. It means we must let go our entire conception of humanity.

Yes, those young boys (and who knows how many others) needed McQueary, his father, Paterno and countless others to do just that: believe the unbelievable. That they couldn’t is sickening and sad but regretfully understandable. Ask yourself: What would you do if you saw a loved one molesting a child? The history of child abuse suggests most people do nothing.

David Jones, Kate Robertson, Oscar Morales for One Young World

At the Havas Café, adjacent the famous Carlton Hotel in Cannes, World Wide CEO of Havas Worldwide, David Jones and Euro RSCG’s U.K. Chairman, Kate Robertson took the stage to announce the location city for next year’s One Young World summit in Zurich.

For those unawares, One Young World is an initiative started by David, Kate and Euro RSCG to bring together the young people of the world in hopes of creating and securing a better future for it. Last year’s inaugural event in London had over one thousand young delegates from over one hundred countries. In fact, our agency in Chicago sent two. Featured “older” guests included Bob Geldoff, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan.

One Young World is a terrific example of a company proactively embracing social responsibility, which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the biggest trends in modern business. As David Jones pointed out (paraphrase), “It’s becoming more and more about what company’s are giving back to the world as opposed to taking from it.”

Marketing plays a key part. In fact, many of our clients (and yours too) are now spending time and money working on initiatives that add value to society and then talking about it. Besides being good corporate citizens, this is also a necessary business move. With the advent of social media and Internet connectivity, human beings no longer tolerate companies and brands that are not embracing values of some kind. Furthermore, when companies are seen as doing harm they are hammered for it, and not just by the press but also by everyone with a Facebook and Twitter account. Are you listening, British Petroleum? The message: Do good or else!

It’s easy to be cynical when big business and especially advertising agencies start talking about doing good works. Such entities are not known for altruism but for making money. Needless to say, they’d better walk the talk.

After the Havas Café event I spoke with my colleagues, Bill Mericle (CCO, Palm + Havas) and Blake Ebel (Co-CCO Euro RSCG Chicago) about this slippery slope. Was the spectacle of One Young World created more to look good than to be good?

“What’s wrong with doing both?” was their unanimous reply. They’re right of course. While creating One Young World clearly puts the agency in a broad spot light it is a deserved one. One Young world is an ambitious, complicated and costly affair. Procuring travel documents alone would tax most agencies beyond their patience. We should be proud that our firm is driving such a massive initiative. As Mericle pointed out, at the least, there is potential for “countless connections made on behalf of the greater good.”

The upside is considerably better than that. After all, these are the people who will be leading our world tomorrow. Presumably, after attending the One Young World conference in Zurich they will return to their home countries fired up to do some good. How could they not?

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More often than not, the comments made to a blog are pithy or trite. But not always. On my last post were some amazing and very touching remarks. I attribute that more to the topic than anything I might have brought to it. Still, a writer -any writer- has to be pleased when his material elicits such a powerful reaction. Thank you!

To reprise, the pastor of my church (John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian) gave a sermon last Sunday on personal identity and what it means to society and, ultimately, God. While he covered many points, I chose to focus on his observation that we Americans tend to identify ourselves, first and foremost, by vocation. He feared that living by such a self-absorbed credo takes us away from loved ones, obligations and even God.

For myself, I could not deny it. My self worth is inextricably tied to my role as a writer, be it of copy, editorial, fiction or blogging. I wondered (and worried) if by doing this I was guilty of denying my family (and myself) of true satisfaction and serenity.

Clearly, I am not the only one with such concerns. Newcomers and professionals alike weighed in on the topic with great passion. Read their comments. Then consider Buchanan’s full sermon.

Perhaps our self-centeredness needs self-appraisal. Mine certainly does. Yet, rather than pursue this argument I’d like to examine, very briefly, the ‘why’ of the matter. Why are we so fixated on our careers and accomplishments?

In a word: Pride. It’s one of the seven deadly sins and maybe, in the big picture, the worst of them. But in my book, pride was always a good thing. I grew up longing to make my father and others proud of me. Who didn’t? But somehow this noble intention became warped. I became wrapped up in achievement. Self-centered in the extreme. Writing turned me inward and I never looked back.

In this country, success is the measure of a man. Parents want their kids to get into the right schools and hang out with the right crowd. Why? That they might be successful. Fathers dream of sons catching touchdowns. Mothers dream their daughters will marry doctors and lawyers, if not become one. No parent I know wants their children to grow up into social workers. Even becoming a teacher is considered a let down. Those that cannot do, teach.

Fact is pulling oneself up from his bootstraps is our country’s greatest myth. Rising from meager beginnings to fantastic wealth. That’s the story of Horatio Alger. That’s the story of America. At their best, the Republicans rally around this clarion. “It’s morning (again) in America,” begins the copy of Hal Riney’s brilliant TV commercial, which helped elect Ronald Reagan to President… Ayn Rand pushed us too far, but try telling that to a college sophomore looking for direction… “Greed is good,” took us even further, defining the eighties… And we ate is up. I did anyway.

Well, I’ve since seen the sun go down many mornings in America: September 11. The war in Iraq. A crippling recession. It gets pretty dark. Especially if you’re alone, fumbling around looking for bootstraps.

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