Moral dilema ahead street sign

What is right and what is wrong -- and how do you decide this?

How do you do what's right -- especially when faced with temptation?

What level of perfection do you require of yourself?

How do you handle it when you don't do what's right?

These are some heavy questions. We all have to consider these things and the answers we come up with make a major difference in our happiness, joy, success and fulfillment in life. You won't come away from reading this with all of the answers, but it should at least be helpful to take five minutes to consider the ideas presented here.

When You've Made a Mistake

It's very possible that you are especially interested in this article now because there has been an issue in your life. Regardless, you are going to make some mistakes in life, and, depending on your natural tendencies, this is going to bother you a little or a lot. Some have very strong feelings of guilt and conscience. Others don't take everything to heart as much and "move on" more easily. Some worry about things for months or years. Others get over it very quickly -- possibly too quickly.

So, first, accept that everyone is going to make mistakes. It's the way people are. In fact, no normal person gets through very many days without doing something that's a problem. Accept this "fact of life" as normal and put yours in perspective. Some mistakes are worse than others in terms of the damage they do to others, so try as hard as you can to avoid these. Many of these mistakes have their own consequences, but you don't need to "pile on" by condemning yourself as totally evil, irredeemable, possessed by the devil, not worth living, etc.

Second, try to break away from your emotions for a few minutes. Take about 10 deep breaths, count to 100, pray, do some push-ups until your arms ache, run, mow the lawn -- anything positive that physically breaks your current mindset.

Third, try to take a more rational look at yourself. Make a list of about 20 things you have done in the past, or things you know you can do in the future, that are actually good.  Instead of beating yourself up so much, make sure you balance things out. You need to be on your own side here -- or at least be an impartial judge. You may not want to fully accept the role of defense attorney, but you shouldn't be the prosecution against yourself. If you don't feel that you can do this on your own, appeal to a good friend, a parent, or, if you are Christian, Jesus. 

Fourth, say you are sorry -- in person. Tell yourself you are truly sorry for doing the thing you have done. If it is wise and won't cause additional damage to the offended party or useless damage to yourself, tell the person who was hurt. Do this in person, however. Don't do it via a text message or email because they can easily be misinterpreted (even with emoticons cry) compared to face-to-face interaction. Try not to do it over the phone, even. Do it in person so they can see that you mean it and so you can make adjustments in your delivery or words if it isn't having the right impact. also, if you are a believer or Christian, confess and "repent".

Fifth, accept forgiveness. Accept forgiveness from the the other person if they offer it. Take them at their word. If the other person doesn't forgive you, you still need to forgive yourself and, if you are a believer, accept forgiveness from God. You need to forgive yourself and accept forgiveness fro a loving God regardless of whether the other person forgives you. "To err is human, to forgive is divine." per Alexander Pope. You should forgive yourself. You should accept God's forgiveness.

Sixth, learn from the experience and determine to not do it again.

Seven, move on. 

Avoiding Errors or How Do You Do What's Right More Often?

Some good advice in this regard is another seven steps:

  1. Anticipate the main temptations, challenges, decisions, and compromising situations you might face in the next day or segment of your day.
  2. Ask for spiritual guidance, courage, wisdom, faith, etc.
  3. Think about creative, tactful, caring, loving and opportunity-minded options for your response.
  4. Decide, in advance, what you are going to do -- including options and flexibility as the events unfold.
  5. "Red flag" sentinel warning in your subconscious mind to get your attention when a tempting event is unfolding or upon you.  
  6. Pray or meditate or count to 10 before taking action or saying something.
  7. Do it with faith that doing the right thing will be good for your soul and character as a loving and caring person -- and that will be enough. 

The best time to think abut what might be coming your way is at the very beginning of each day. You will be doing yourself a great favor if you spend some time praying or meditating every morning when you first get up. You should include some thoughts about what you are going to do that day and how you intend to handle these things.

If, for example, you know that you are going to be challenged by a manager about something you did (or should have done) in your job (or teacher in school, etc.), think about how you are going to handle it (2, 3 and 4 above). You will do much better than if you just walk into the situation without preparation.

This is useful in almost all situations (even those not specifically involving moral choices) and extremely useful in areas of temptation. Instead of suddenly, without preparation, finding yourself faced with a 

What Level of Perfection Do You Require of Yourself?

Ideally, we could live perfect lives. However, we really can't -- so just give it up. Perfection is, as they say, often the enemy of the good. Shoot, instead, for the best you humanly can do -- probably 99% in critical areas and 90% in day-to-day other areas.

The need to be perfect paralyzes people, limits human relationship interaction, and stifles many opportunities involving risk/reword trade-offs. You may have experienced this in school with Math -- where trial and error is such a vital part of the learning process. Those afraid to make a mistake don't experience the full understanding of how the problems are actually solved. Students trying to achieve a perfect GPA become so risk-adverse that they don't don't even take courses where they could learn the most. 

These points aren't being made to encourage immoral behavior -- just in case someone is getting the wrong idea somehow. The point of this is to encourage you to give yourself a break if you do happen to make and mistake and to set character goals for yourself that are actually achievable.

If you want to feel honest about this self-forgiveness thing, make sure you are also forgiving toward others when they make mistakes. It makes you feel like a real hypocrite if you hold others to a standard of perfectionism and, yet, have a completely lower standard for yourself. (This applies to marriage relationships, your workers if you are the manager, your view of politicians, and many other areas as well -- but that isn't the point of this article.)

So, even though there are those who would implore you to be perfect, just realize that this is an aspirational idealized goal -- not a practical possibility. We can aspire toward perfect behavior (like never swearing or getting angry), but we aren't going to get there.  It simply isn't going to happen. So, set a lower goal and be satisfied with your life as you grow toward it. If you take a step backwards you are just normal.

Don't expect that there won't be consequences if you make mistakes, but you at least don't have to make things worse with unrealistic expectations. There are, of course, lines you do not want to cross. These require a very high degree of vigilance and extremely high standards. Loyalty to your wife is an example. there are many others. Just be aware that the downside of slipping in key areas can be extreme and, even, life-threatening. Avoid these "at all costs".

What, Though, Is Right and What Is Wrong?

Whether you have been fully conscious of it or not, you are constantly making decisions involving your values in life. Good decisions can lead to success and happiness. Bad decisions can lead to trouble, frustration and guilt. Short term will often have to be weighed against long term. Many times, the "eternal" and soul will be in conflict with the worldly and immediate satisfaction.

It can be very unsettling to not have a fairly clear idea of what's right and it can be very time-consuming to come up with your own moral code. Most people take a lifetime -- so don't be concerned that you don't have everything figured out.

Some people just decide to make a career out this and become professors of philosophy. While Socrates was credited with saying, "The un-examined life is not worth living.",  most people choose to make a decision to live life as well as spend time thinking about it. This article is focused on helping young men who would are thinking about a moral code so you can live a better life vs. "life examining" as an end in itself.

There is no way that a short article like this can provide the answers of right and wrong for you, but here are some short cuts:

  1. Think about the "Golden Rule" and how it would apply to your life and various situations.
  2. Examine the Ten Commandments.
  3. Read the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament -- along with some help from others. Whether you believe in Jesus or not, many of the moral standards of the modern world are based on His teachings.
  4. Ask those you admire most where they get their guidance from -- and read biographies of great leaders. 
  5. Look at standards that have been adopted by the societies (often found in their founding documents and constitutions) that seem to be most caring, loving, compassionate, and successful. 
  6. Look at standards adopted by organizations or professions you admire -- such as the Boy Scout oath, law, motto and slogan (despite failures of some leaders to abide by these). Nursing, for example, has a Code of Ethics you might want to read and consider relative to how these ideas might apply to your life. 
  7. Interpret, adjust, and combine these until they make sense to you and you really feel them in your gut as being "right".

 Boy Scout Oath, Law, Motto and Slogan

You can look into some famous philosophers as well, but be aware that this may get very complex very quickly. If you are an action-oriented person, the seven ideas above will serve you well enough to get started and be successful almost immediately. If you are the "philosopher type", you can use the ideas of others while you continue your in-depth study.

What isn't recommended it that you throw out everything that humankind has already worked through over the centuries and "start from scratch" with a blank slate. We wouldn't do this with math, science, agriculture, medicine, etc. Why would we do this with our moral code? It simply takes too long and is too dangerous to start from a blank slate. If a certain standard worked for others, we should at least consider that there was some wisdom in it. On the other hand, shouldn't we try to learn from others' mistakes if their moral code or standards led to disaster, death, hate, broken hearts, and a general mess?

Final Thoughts

Do your best, but don't expect perfection -- either in your actions/words or in finding the ultimate answer about right and wrong in all circumstances.

Anticipate the temptations and challenges -- and decide in advance what, in love, you will say and do.

Forgive yourself, ask for forgiveness and forgive others.

Remember the "Golden Rule" of doing, in love, to others as you would have them, in love, do unto you.