When I walk away and leave cheese-encrusted dishes in the sink, I know that it’s wrong. If I were a puppy, my ears would droop and I’d crawl under the couch. But since I’m not a puppy, I pretend it’s a simple oversight, and that my wife and I will forget all about it as soon as we sit down to watch TV. I pretend that all of this is true, but in fact I have done nothing less than given up the moral high ground.
By “moral high ground,” I don’t refer to big moral questions. I don’t mean whether I want to raise or lower taxes, whether or not I eat meat, or whether I advocate school prayer. (In fact, I prayed in school, but they were desperate prayers that I not get caught, so I don’t think that counts.) Instead, I mean the fragile yet devastating balance of moral superiority between two people who are intimate and feel that killing one another would be inappropriate.
Here’s an example of moral high ground. Say I’m working late, and afterwards my coworkers and I decide to get dinner. We spend an hour in a mediocre chain restaurant. I eat a Mesquite Chicken Platter with coleslaw, and I drink two beers. We hang out for another hour bitching about our customers, drinking more beer and eating stale dinner rolls. Then I drive home, walk in the door, and realize several things. I did not call my wife to assure her I hadn’t been killed in a Russian mafia carjacking. I did not stop at the cleaners or the drug store on my way home. And I did not bring her a chocolate lava cake.
I have just surrendered the moral high ground. I am wallowing through the mud of my bad behavior, enabling her to lob missiles of righteousness down upon me if she wants to.
Losing the moral high ground is easy. At least it’s easy for me, because I’m a dumbass. Taking the moral high ground is difficult because everyone starts off on top of Morality Hill. If your partner doesn’t tumble down the hill by himself, you must achieve moral superiority by kicking your partner down the hill when he isn’t looking. Once you’ve lost the high ground, it’s nearly impossible to take it back without help. And by help, I mean that your partner refrains from rolling any boulders down the hill at you while you climb up.
Now, let’s jump to the Saturday morning after my chocolate lava cake failure. I suggest that we go to the museum, since I figure my wife might like that better than watching more reruns of “The Unit.” As we drive up the tollway, physically we’re sitting together in cozy proximity. Morally, she looms above me like Zeus. She says, with perfect good will, “Hey, let’s go to the craft fair.”
I’d rather eat a scorpion than go to the craft fair, I think. But what I say is, “Sure, that sounds good.” I am so far down the side of Morality Hill that I would agree to go to a barbecued baby cookout, and I’d bring lemonade.
“Well, if you don’t want to go…” my wife says.
“I want to go!” I fling her my most sincere fake smile. Is she just messing with me?
“We’ll just stay an hour or so. They have really cute puppies.”
We don’t need a puppy! Does she want a puppy? She didn’t exactly say that… “I’d like to see the puppies,” I say. Because I’m such a moral invertebrate right now, I don’t feel I can entrench myself in a strong anti-puppy position. But I do examine the rear view mirror more than necessary and avoid further comments.
By afternoon I have trudged through the craft fair, visited the museum, and returned home puppy-less. We own some red ceramic roosters that may cause me to blind myself someday rather than look upon them, and I’m cleaning cat vomit off my pillow. I feel that my wife has allowed me to climb most of the way back up to the moral high ground, and I reek of gratitude.
The balance of moral superiority is delicate, but its power is undeniable. I’m hoping that my wife backs the car into the garage door soon. I’ve had my eye on a flat screen TV.