When you get in trouble and you don't know right from wrong... Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong... Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! Take the straight and narrow path and if you start to slide Give a little whistle! Give a little whistle! And always let your conscience be your guide!
Ah yes...the wisdom of a cricket!
For those of you who do not remember the dialogue above, it was a musical exchange between Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio’s sister Gizelle. Clearly, Jiminy was speaking as Gizelle's conscience!
Most of us know that our thoughts and our actions should be guided by our conscience. We take this to mean, "I think this is right," or, "I think this is what I should do." Some take it to mean an even easier approach and say things like, "I need to listen to my heart," or, "I need to follow my heart."
And while we all know the intentions behind such thinking are honorable, there could be a problem with maintaining such a mind-set. You see, most people are doing what they think is right (or at least seemed right at the time they did it), but their underlying intentions are not always guided by what is considered moral.
If our conscience is not properly formed, or if it has become de-formed, then it can’t possibly point us in the right direction. This is where we get the analogy of a moral compass. We simply must be properly oriented.
I learned early in life, from my days as a Sea Scout, that if a compass is not pointing to true North, it doesn’t matter how closely I follow it or believe in its accuracy, I am going to go the wrong way. And the longer I continue on that wrong path, the more lost I am going to become.
It is my belief that, just as we are born to seek God, we are also born with our conscience intact. And I believe that it is pre-programmed to know right from wrong.
But then life happens to us and we can be severely effected by our experiences. Our conscience can lose its true North heading. Strengthening it must become a daily routine...as essential to our lives as exercise and healthy diets.
Simply put, we must be as conscious of our thoughts as we are of our acts. We must constantly be reminding ourselves to follow what we KNOW to be right and not just what we feel is.
This concept of morality is not as nebulous as we are led to believe. I mean, it really is relatively simple at its absolute core.
Morality is simply leading a life in accordance with what is right and wrong. It is considered to be the basis of character and our character should always be wrapped around ethics.
But while both the concept of a moral compass and the definition of morality are simple and clear, the concept of what constitutes morality is not. One person’s moral compass may not point in the same direction as another’s as far as right and wrong conduct and belief are concerned.
Certainly we all remember Mohamed Atta. He was the leader of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers that flew four airliners into American buildings and fields in September of 2001. According to his (their) moral compass, those nineteen murderers were headed in the right direction. But we all know they were not!
I believe there is a HUGE difference between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it....or knowing what is wrong and not doing it! Our conscience guides us, but it is our inner strength of character or virtue that leads to moral action.
The moral values that enable these simple choices must pass the litmus tests of truthfulness, trustworthiness, fair-mindedness, and integrity...none of which the hijackers possessed.
Seventeen years before the Twin Towers fell, there was another aviation disaster. In 1984 an Avianca Airlines jet crashed in Spain...slamming into the side of a mountain and killing everyone aboard. Though the crash is categorized as a terrible accident, it was not as if the pilots did not have a warning.
Investigators studying the accident made a chilling discovery. The "black box" cockpit recorders revealed that several minutes before the crash, a shrill, computer-synthesized voice from the plane's automatic warning system spoke to the crew...repeatedly...in English...
"Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! "
The chief pilot, evidently believing the warning system was malfunctioning because it did not speak to him in his native tongue though understanding it, snapped back at it...in English!
"Shut up, Gringo! Shut up Gringo!" he shouted. Then he switched the system off. Minutes later the plane plowed into the side of a mountain and everyone on board died.
I remember hearing about this story on the news shortly after it happened. It wasn’t until I recalled it though, when I was writing Vignettes, that it struck me as a perfect parable of the way we have come to treat the warning messages our consciences send to us.
The wisdom of our age tells us feelings of guilt or doubt are nearly always erroneous or hurtful and therefore we should (and often time do) switch them off. And in so doing, we fail!
I mean after all, what is the conscience? Isn’t it an internal warning device that speaks to us in a language we understand but don’t want to hear?
In today’s world, the conscience has become seen as a defect...one that deceptively robs us of our self-esteem. But I assure you, having a working conscience is far from being a defect.
Having the ability to sense our own guilt is a tremendous gift. It has been designed into the very framework of the human soul. It is the automatic warning system that cries, "Pull up! Pull up!" before we crash and burn.
I read somewhere once that the human conscience is the soul reflecting upon itself. It is at the heart of what distinguishes us from the ‘lesser species’. We, unlike other animals who seem to instinctively know right from wrong, must first contemplate our actions and then make moral self-evaluations before taking them. Further evidence, in my opinion, that we are not superior and preferred of God’s creations!
Each of us, even the most unspiritual or religious, has a conscience. We are born with it, as I said. We have this innate ability to sense right and wrong. But as I also said many times, as we grow older we tend to lose touch with gifts with which we were born.
Our conscience earnestly asks us to do what we believe is right and it attempts to keep us from doing what we believe is wrong. Simply put, this is the basic function of the conscience.
I always caution people NOT to equate the conscience with the voice of God. I believe the conscience is strictly a human faculty that judges our actions and thoughts by the light of the highest standards we perceive. This is how terrorism and the Crusades can be explained for surely no God that I know could or would try to convince me to do the heinous things that have been done in His name!
When we violate our conscience, it is we who condemns ourselves. Feelings of shame, anguish, regret, consternation, anxiety, disgrace and even fear are triggered. Conversely, when we follow our conscience, it commends us. It brings us joy, serenity, self-respect, well-being and gladness.
Conscience is outer knowledge working together with our inner self. That is to say, our conscience knows our inner motives and our truest thoughts. It is above reason and beyond intellect. We can rationalize, trying to justify our actions in our own minds, but you know as well as I, a violated conscience is not easily convinced.
Many people today respond to their conscience by trying to suppress it...to overrule it or silence it. They conclude that the real blame for their wrong behavior lies in some childhood trauma, the way their parents raised them or the effects of some societal injustice. They refuse to take responsibility for their actions because it is so much easier to blame it on causes beyond their control.
And if they violate it long enough, their conscience falls silent. Morally, they are left flying blind. Psychopaths, serial killers, pathological liars and others who seem to lack any moral sense are extreme examples of people who have ruined or desensitized their consciences. Can such people really commit their heinous acts without remorse or scruples?
Having watched human beings being burned alive or beheaded makes me thinks they do. And I fully believe it is so, only because they have ravaged their own consciences through relentless perversions of morality and law.
Sometimes we try to convince ourselves that our immorality is a clinical problem, not a moral one. It is so much easier to define our transgressions and moral lapses as diseases or conditions or syndromes. But just because the annoying warning voices may be gone, the mountainside that we are about to crash into most certainly is not. In fact, the mountainside is closer than ever.
We must never train ourselves to ignore our conscience. To respond to ourselves with such self-excusing arguments is tantamount to shouting, "Shut up, Gringo! Shut up now!" and flying intentionally into that mountainside!