"Dear Aunt Traci,
I'm a college student living on my own, and to make ends meet, I've been doing some things that I'm not proud of. These are things that would get me in big trouble if anybody knew. I know what I'm doing is wrong, but I really need the money. I know I'm not the only one who does the wrong thing sometimes. Besides, I'm doing it so that I can afford to get an education and live a better life. Is it really all that bad?
Everybody Does It, Right?"
Oh do I know the feeling of money pressure!! That ice-cold panic that comes in the middle of the night when you realize rent is due, your bank accounts are overdrawn, and you literally do not have the money to pay any of it. And, I can also relate to getting "creative" with ways to earn money. Did you know that I was a phone psychic for about six months? Or an erotica book reviewer? I even put makeup on dead people to sell Mary Kay Cosmetics when I was in college. So, I get that we have to do strange things sometimes to make ends meet.
But here's the difference. I never did anything morally "wrong." (Although my husband at the time felt that my phone psychic gig was immoral. I feel like I'm about as psychic as anyone, and felt like I was giving them good advice.) I never sold drugs, stole from anyone, stood on a corner with a sign and begged. There were days when the beggar outside McDonald's had more money than we did walking in there. But the one thing I never compromised is my values.
Everybody, you need to look at the big picture of your life. It's SO easy to fall down the slippery slope of moral decline. John Steinbeck wrote a great book about it in his novel The Winter of Our Discontent. Another great example is that of the giant company Enron. They didn't start out bilking old people from their retirements. It started out with "creative accounting." Infidelity doesn't start with sex. It starts with flirting. Small compromises in your values make it far easier to commit greater and greater compromises, until one day you look at yourself in the mirror and think, "How did I let it get this far?"
You are the only one who can answer these questions. "Is it really worth it to let myself down by doing what you know is wrong?" "Am I just rationalizing the 'higher goal' of your education to justify behavior that you're not proud of?" "Do I agree with the tenet that 'integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching?'" You know the answers to these questions in your heart, or you wouldn't be asking me.
I encourage you to raise your standards for yourself (and do it before you get caught!). You'll find that it spills over positively in the most unexpected ways.
Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not.