“Virtuous” living expensive, disheartening
Sanjay Paul

The article appeared in The Etownian, Feb. 28, 2008.

How quickly should one begin living a virtuous life?

All in good time, said St. Augustine, who implored God to grant him chastity and continence, but not yet! Ah, but conservation, that epitome of personal virtue (according to modern day philosopher, Dick Cheney), may not admit of much delay. The future of the earth hangs in the balance (as Al Gore has shown in his Nobel Prize-winning PowerPoint slides), and any tardiness in implementing virtuous conservation behavior might rise to the level of original sin. (In a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum, singer and general all-round do-gooder Bono gently mocked Father Gore, seeking his forgiveness for various transgressions).

Moved by the Cheney-Gore exhortations, Professor Homer decided to act. He went out and bought a compact fluorescent (CFC) bulb to replace the regular (incandescent) bulb in his desk lamp. The CFC bulb — white, gleaming, spiral shape and all — appeared the very essence of virtue, and Homer gladly unhanded a small fortune to buy it. He chose to go without scones for a whole month — a worthy tradeoff, he told himself sternly, as he looked out on an expanse of unsullied snow while his stomach made protesting noises.

The virtuous bulb safely screwed into the lamp, Homer set out to enjoy its light. He switched on the lamp and ... nothing. No light. For an instant Homer thought the bulb was defective, but then it sprang to life. Well, more like flickered dimly, for far from the cascading luminosity that he expected would envelop the room, the bulb appeared to be incapable of shedding more than a tepid light, scarcely enough to illuminate the pages of the book that Homer cradled in his hopeful hands. An inconvenient light, he thought grimly, as he strained to read the words that night.

The experience did not get better with time. Each time Homer switched on the lamp, an eternity hung in the balance. Would the light come on, he would wonder in that split second — the light took no longer than a trice, but it seemed like forever — or was he doomed to everlasting darkness? Thoughts about his own transgressions would run through his head in that instant.

Perhaps he had displeased his marketing colleagues that day? Why had the normally restrained and soulful Chung kicked his office door? Why had the gentle Greenberg failed to share a packet of candy with him? What was it with these marketers any way? Why did they have to be supplicated every day? Why were they so quick to take offense? Homer started to get angry. Why couldn’t they be more like the economists or the accountants or even the lawyers, so easygoing, so tranquil ... Then the bulb would suddenly flicker to life and Homer would wonder if the lamp was playing tricks on his mind. The marketers were really such splendid chaps.

Then one day the unthinkable happened. The bulb died. Homer switched on the lamp, sweated through the usual eternity, thinking dangerous thoughts about his business colleagues, and waited for the flicker, but this day there was to be no flicker. The moment of darkness stretched on, the stillness of the night becoming increasingly heavy, but Homer sat in the unlit room next to the lamp, waiting for the light to come on, so he could read his book.

This was it, he thought resignedly. The CFC bulb, an object he had bought with such hope, such enthusiasm, such virtuosity dammit!, had failed him. True, it had lasted two years, but he had thought it would last several more, perhaps even decades. He had harbored fond hopes of passing on the bulb to his children — Look!, he would say to them, my first CFC! And they would gather around the dim light cast by the lamp, take a bite of Greenberg’s candy, look at each other, and think of how their father had helped save the planet.

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