The school library was an oasis of stillness in turbulent hallways. It smelled of whispered words where sunlight spilled in through grand bay windows. The illuminated rows of book spines watched keyboards tippity tapping in the media center. An electric pencil sharpener whirred intermittently and concentrating students glanced as one to see who might be sharpening such primitive communication devices. Caldecott Award winners called down from displays, hoping for a brave primary student to whisk them away home for a spell, while recent Newbery Awards winked knowingly at each other, confident in their status as assigned summer reading.
Reining queen over this literary land was Ms. “Caponelli, the boisterous school librarian. Ms. Caponelli kept her black curly Italian hair piled intimidatingly on top of her Italian head. She laughed loudly, especially for a librarian, and freely passed out demerits for any “hullabaloo,” which out of her vast vernacular, was her favorite word. Ms. Caponelli believed in merging Victorian frills with Zen simplicity and therefore alternated wearing earthy combat boots and heels with her pant suits. No one ever had a neutral opinion about Ms. Caponelli, she was equally revered and despised by colleagues and students alike. Shanti was helping Ms. Caponelli divvy up non-fiction returns according to the Dewey Decimal system.
A bell shrilled its warning to straggling students. William snapped his American History book shut and tossed his scratch paper in a waste basket. Shanti met his smile with raised eyebrows and watched him pass through the electronic article surveillance towers presiding over the exit. ‘They look like the modern version of sphinxes,’ she thought and squinched her nose, “Someone should make a law against throwing away paper products. People should have to take responsibility for conserving natural resources like trees,”
“Do you think if a law was passed which instituted fines for putting paper products in common trash cans that people would value trees more,” Ms. Caponelli was always ready for a light-hearted serious conversation.
“Well, we need them for oxygen.”
“But, are you saying that a new law would cause people to value trees more?”
“I don’t think that it matters if people value trees or not. I just want to make sure that all the paper gets recycled.”
Ms. Caponelli was sorting a pile of paperback manga books. She liked how Japanese books were inverted. The Japanese put their “Once Upon a Time’ where Americans proclaimed “The End.” When you put East and West back to back you get a never ending story – a completed circle. “Does recycling make someone a good person?”
“Well, it’s something that good people ought to do.” Shanti thought all teachers, especially a public school librarian, would be well versed in the virtue of universal recycling. How could she not know this? Maybe it had something to do with those weird boots.
“So the act of placing paper in a recycling bin makes one person better than someone who would put the same piece of paper in a waste basket?”
“No. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s irresponsible to put paper in a trash can when you could easily put it in a recycle bin.” Shanti glanced up allowing window light to fill her eye. “I guess it makes that person less responsible than someone who takes the time to recycle.”
Ms. Caponelli persisted, “Do you think we should make laws against things that are wrong, or what is arbitrarily labeled as irresponsible?”
Shanti felt flustered, grown ups could be so dense sometimes, “Being irresponsible with a valuable natural resource is wrong.”
Ms. Caponelli enjoyed extracting the core idea of people’s thoughts from their neuro-flumadiddle by asking them to explain themselves several different ways before she responded in earnest. “So you have differentiated between right and wrong, and claimed that that difference is not based on personal whim?”
Shanti laughed, Ms. Caponelli looked like a manga character herself with her wide-eyed quizzical questioning. She certainly did not tout that typical placating grown-up diffidence that characterized so many of her conversations with adults. “Yes. I guess so. Don’t we all? Don’t you?”
“Absolutely. Basic rules of right and wrong are inscribed on everyone’s hearts so that only people who are purposefully numb can’t tell the difference as easily as a child can discern night and day. People who pay money to take an ethics class are getting the socks scammed off of them. That would be like an Olympic runner taking classes on how to walk: completely useless.”
“Are you agreeing with me or not?”
“Yes. Sort of. I just don’t agree with the way you want to go about it. Let’s put these books up.”
“You mean about making a law?”
Ms. Caponelli clunked a pile of books on her cart. “Yeah, I just don’t believe that more laws make people more apt they to behave themselves. Whether you are talking about recycling your newspapers or murdering your mother, if someone has purposed that they are going to do something evil, they will, no matter how many laws are passed. People rationalize their actions based on the shortcomings of their particular circumstance; however, if an internally motivated person has decided ahead of time they will not compromise the integrity of their standard they will have no use for any law. To that person, laws are superfluous. The purpose of the law is to point out that the lawbreaker has fallen short of the accepted standard. It is not to force people to behave in a socially acceptable manner.”
“But they are more likely to once they know that there will be some consequences for their actions.” Shanti was still suspicious toward a librarian who did not immediately validate her recycling sentimentality.
“Yes and no. That principle caters to the lowest common denominator and assumes no private dignity. Some people are slavish, driven exclusively by external rewards and punishments, but others can be internally motivated. Not everyone is simply the sum of their genes and environment. In fact, some of the very best art comes from deprived environments. The Italian Renaissance followed hot on the heels of the Bubonic plague. The darker the night, the brighter the starlight.”
Shanti relaxed. Maybe Ms. Caponelli was listening to her. “So you think that the more laws there are the less creative people will be in their demonstration of personal goodness?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” Ms. Caponelli slid a pharmacology book in line on the 600 shelf. “There is a medication called metoprolol given to people coming into the hospital having a heart attack. It is called a beta blocker, which means it blocks stimulation of the beta receptors on the heart. The beta receptors are like the brain’s gas pedal on the heart. When they are stimulated they tell the heart to go faster, but a beta blocker, like metoprolol, blocks the brain from stomping on the gas pedal and forces the heart to beat in a normal range, which is somewhere between 70 to 90 beats per minute.”
When Shanti closed her eyes she saw a big cartoon brain driving a heart shaped car to work. “So its like computerized GPS interference with a car’s speed.”
“That’s true. A car that is tracked by satellite for speeding and automatically slowed via onboard computer would be like cardiac tissue under the influence of metoprolol. When a patient takes metoprolol the heart cannot beat so fast as to use up all available oxygenated blood thus causing the crushing pain of heart attack.”
“Alright,” Shanti laughed, “You are going to have to land this plane. Where are we going with this analogy?”
“If you take metoprolol you won’t have a heart attack, but you also won’t be able to run a marathon.” Ms. Caponelli inserted a book on Kenpo in the 700s section. “In general, people who do not exercise and have poor diets eventually have heart attacks. They will never be able to run or dance, and eventually will not even be able to climb a flight of stairs. The heart will be forced by the medication to “behave itself,” and would not be able support vigorous activity with increased heart rate even if the patient wanted it.” She open her next book to an illustration of Dike, the scale holding Greecian goddess of justice. “The analogy can be applied to ethics in this way: If a person cannot channel their energy into being creatively good they will be forced to conform to society’s basic standards via fines, prison, or even death.” Ms. Caponelli twirled the copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in her hand gunslinger style before dropping it into place in the 800s. “A grapevine that is not trained to climb a trellis from it youth will have to be cut back almost to ground level before it can bear a decent crop of grapes, and if a man does not learn to control his spirit, his spirit will surely control him. If that grape vine is never cut back it will eventually grow and cover the whole vineyard with tangled vines and leaves that block out the sunlight.”
Shanti remembered the parents in the restaurant last night who kept trying to use cajoling and bribes to effect polite behavior from their child. It had not worked. The couple had left the restaurant discouraged and bickering. She wondered if they might have obtained a better result if they had tried more “pruning” and less tolerance of “rampant growth.” Ms. Caponelli had a way with words, she thought, Librarians seem to have a supernatural ability to osmotically absorb information from being continuously exposed to books.”“But how do you get a people group to agree on what is basically right and wrong so that they can make an acceptable law code.”
“You don’t have to. Right and wrong transcend culture, and people already agree on it at a primal level. Good and evil are not subject to the whims of personal preference. Human beings, who cannot call themselves into existence by instigating their own births, have no jurisdiction over the definition of right and wrong. They can only understand it or disbelieve it.” In the 900s Ms. Caponelli opened an illustrated book of Mesopotamian history and sighed at the pleading prayerful eyes of Tell Asmar Statuettes. She snapped the book shut and said, “They can be caught up in the light of truth or they can diminish under the pressure of the whole universe going against them and their inner falsehood. The universe cannot abide a lie and will steadily choke it out like a wisteria vine bringing down a dead tree.”
“But if, like you said, the law is superfluous to people who are good, what does it matter how many laws we make? The law only holds terror for lawbreakers. The more laws we have the more likely we will be to single out and correct those who break the law.”
Ms. Caponelli wheeled her cart back around to the 100s, “The purpose of having the law is not to call into existence right and wrong nor does it force people to behave themselves. It is merely a representation of absolutes which shows everyone that they are not living up to the standard. Who do you know that does not speed, or play with their cell phone while driving? This is such a small piece of the law, and it is so readily broken everyday by everyone.”
Shanti was taken aback, Ms. Caponelli was not only rewording the rhetoric for recycling she seemed to be an active proponent of Anarchy. How can someone be an Anarchist and keep books straight at the same time, “So you think that since everyone is guilty of breaking the law we should not have any law at all? What is wrong with just having various degrees of punishment for various degrees of offenses. You know what they say, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime.’”
“There is nothing wrong with that idea if all you hope to accomplish is ensuring that the whole bulk of candy wrappers in existance hit the recycle bin, but that goal is too small to engage the human soul. If you want people to value trees, you have to take them for a walk in the woods. An eternal human soul enjoying a hike in an old-growth forest with a wife or a child is infinitely more valuable than a repurposed wrapper, and in order to enjoy that walk in the woods the eternal human soul has to first want to go for a walk more than they want to go to the movies.”
“So the dilemma is that people cannot have good things because they do not want good things, and they do not want good things because they do not understand that they are better?”
“Yes. In order to enjoy the deep woods, it has to have already had a call on your soul. It is not a passion that you can call into being ex nihilo. It has to have already been calling you.”
That an old school phrase. It’s Latin, meaning creating something out of nothing,” Ms. Caponelli explained. “The law of right and wrong is written on your heart. Remember when you said, ‘Being irresponsible with a valuable natural resource is wrong.’ That value judgment was the deep law of the universe rising to the surface of your soul and shining out of your mouth. Be careful not to douse that light, for the desire to follow the law is not inscribed on your heart.” A cloud moved away from the sun and Shanti happened to glance up at the bay windows in time to notice a smoky shadow slip into a piece of shade. “This is exactly why making more laws has never solved society’s problems.”
Shanti shook the questionable image from her consciousness. She was trying to concentrate on this concept. “But still, you seem to be evading the question, if the law is already written on our hearts and people intrinsically submit to or rebel against it, why have law at all?”
“Concepts are defined by language. They precipitate out of the vague ideas of the mind when we have the language to shape them into being. The law defines what is wrong, but it cannot so clearly define what is right. We would not have a clear idea of how to talk about wrong if we did not have language of the law to define it. We would know wrong as a vague idea in our imaginations if we had no clear law.” Ms. Caponelli brushed the dusty curtains out of the way, welcoming more light in the library. “The law is a reflection or representation of something better to come. In this world it is set up as a symbol for us to hope in something better. The sunlight bouncing off the moon is sunlight, yet an imperfect representation of sunlight. Moonlight is pleasant and reminds us on dark nights not to be dismayed because that the dawn is coming. The moonlight is a reminder of the sun. It is not the sun itself.”
“Whoa! Wait a minute. To what future sun might you be referring to?”
“The bright, morning Star.”
“I thought teachers were not allowed to talk about religion.”
Ms. Caponelli laughed fearlessly, “Just because something is against the law does not make it wrong, and just because you cannot see something does not mean it does not exist.” She focused her eyes peacefully on Shanti’s pupil, “The trees move, and you say the wind is blowing. When you know in your heart that there is right and wrong, and all the world around you tells you that morality is arbitrary and relative to your own point of view you know those people are like insane inpatients saying the wind does not exist: it is only the ghosts in the trees.”
Suddenly, the school bell shrieked in the halls, breaking the spell that Ms. Caponelli had woven. Shanti remembered the chemistry test she had coming up in ten minutes and panickly wondered if she would have time to look up how to convert moles to grams before class started. Manuel would know. Shanti hastily bid good-bye to Ms. Caponelli as she jetted out the door hoping to track down her friend before the next bell.