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  • Reverend James Squire

Do As I Do, Not As I Say

I received a copy of a Wall Street Journal article that a friend indicated that he would send on to me since I don’t receive the Journal either on line or in print version. The article came in the mail yesterday delivered by the post office. He didn’t send it with a stroke of his finger on a keyboard to forward an email. He took the time to cut out the article from the print version. He did what he said he would do. On top of that he had to inconvenience himself to make sure I had an opportunity to read it. Who does that? Not enough! It may seem like a small gesture to some, but it points to a big gesture of the ethical life.

Another friend, Dr. John Crosby, former Superintendent of the Radnor School District and founder of the Uncommon Individual Foundation, summarized Dr. Robert Coles book, The Moral Life of Children, with these words, “Do as I do, not as I say.” We have all had people say one thing and not do what they say they would do, and on the surface, it seems perhaps no big deal. How many times have I had people say to me that I must have you and your wife to dinner, and the dinner invitation never comes or a friend says I will do this for you and the statement disappears into the world of “maybe not.”

For me it is at the heart of an important matter. When I got the Journal article in the mail yesterday, I was shocked that I was receiving it. He did what he said he would do! The article points to the central factor of relationships, namely that “Do as I do, not as I say,” the very bedrock of trust. Doing what we say we will do is the very foundation of friendship and social connections that empower. If my friend who sent the article indicates at some future date that he will send on another, I will know that it will be arriving just as I know the sun will come up on the next day. If you know that people can be trusted to do the regular things in life, you then know that you can be assured that they can be trusted to do the big things as well. They go hand in hand!

When you work in a large school community as I did, you can see the importance of actions over words multiple times a day particularly when I indicated to do one thing and went out of my way to do it. It was my modus operandi. I am sure that I failed on occasions to tell a student, faculty member, parent, or alumnus that I would do one thing and not do it, but it is hard to remember if that occurred. It is the small but important gestures of “do as I do, not as I say,” that not only make an individual more credible, it is also the glue in any community that wants to be one that is ethical. It is the ethical currency. It could be a school, business, team, etc.

It can be seen with much more at stake than a dinner invitation. It is why the origin of honor codes in schools occurred first in the military service academies. They had their start there for very particular reasons. When in the midst of battle, a soldier doesn’t have to wonder or be surprised when someone is there to join him or her in the mission, doing what they say they would do. That ethical habit starts with what some people may call unimportant examples, but like ethical action, it is the cumulative action of doing what you say in both big and not so big ways that builds friendship and communities. Aristotle said that it is the repetition of doing moral things that creates the moral life.

I never forgot the look on the faces of members of my school community when I showed up when I said I would in spite of a crazy schedule or inconvenience. I learned that valuable lesson and its importance. Trust is the currency of any community and in any religious gesture. “Do as I do, not as I say!” finds a home in the message: “Preach the Gospel! Use words if necessary.” My friend said it another way on the note attached to the article that he sent me, “As promised!”

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