I was stupid because I acted on the former. I knew better. The probability of a negative outcome is nearly 100% in the situation where my stupidly reigned supreme. I knew it, but I deluded myself to believe. I was the exception. (But aren't we all?)
I accepted a free lunch.
If the empirical evidence through time immemorial has proven anything, it has proven that nothing is more expensive than the free lunch. The person granting the favor, the gift, the loan, the concession for nothing in immediate exchange is sure to seek compensation for his putative altruism sometime in the future, usually at the time when you are the least willing or able to pay.
The apparent innocence of the circumstances disarmed my guard and addled my reasoning skills.
My neighbor, an oncologist from Alexandria, Egypt, and his family spend the last quarter of each year in Egypt. They usually returned in late January. My neighbor’s wife had planted a vegetable garden during the summer. The garden was in full bloom when they left for Egypt this year. The garden’s bounty would rot by mid-fall if left unharvested..
My neighbor texted me from Egypt. He implored me to harvest. Mind you, my neighbor and I are mere acquaintances. We’ll banter innocuously about the weather, or some such, when we are simultaneously in our respective yards, but that's it. We have never engaged in a quid pro quo transaction.
Was I performing a favor for him, or vice versa? I convinced myself it was the former. The produce would go to waste, and waste is a sin.
A few days after receiving the text, I tiptoed into my neighbor’s garden of Eden. Like Adam and Eve, a low-grade fever of sin imbued my conscious: None of this was mine, was my immediate impression. I had earned no right to harvest. But harvest I did.
There were no apples, but I plucked two cucumbers, a small watermelon, and a few mint sprigs. I hurried the bounty the short distance home. I laid it all bare on the kitchen countertop. I estimated a market value of less than ten dollars. Why was my conscious hectoring me unrelentingly ?
I ventured over only once more. I picked a sprig of mint. I resolved to pick no more. As I walked the few steps from his garden to my yard, with sprig in hand, I hear my name delivered from a recognizable voice. He’s home? I turned toward my neighbor's house. He on the front doorstep and waved and then immediately explained that he was sent home because he had tested positive (falsely, he would subsequently learn) for COVID-19 in Alexandria. A subsequent test in Philadelphia proved the Alexandria test was false. His family remained in Egypt. He was unable to return. He implored me to harvest more of the still-thriving mint. He had no use for it.
No, thank you. Perhaps I was paranoid, but the more I pondered the encounter and my neighbor's effusive geniality, the more I was convinced a bill was forthcoming. I was convinced the bill would far exceed the market value of the produce I harvested.
You can be both paranoid and right. The two can be mutually inclusive. And they are. Lo-and-behold, my conscious was proven right again. The bill came due six weeks later in the form of a request. My charitable neighbor asked me if I could drive him to a car dealership 30 miles away to retrieve a recent purchase. Had his wife been home, he explained, she would have served as chauffer.
Have you not heard of Uber? I thought. The drive was at least 45 minutes one-way, more with traffic. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it: The value of my time per our hour exceeds ten dollars worth of scrawny home-garden produce. The inconvenience of rearranging my schedule to adhere to his desired time also exceeds the value of the produce. (I am unsure how to value the cost associated with my seething resentment and self-abnegation, but I'm sure it exceeds ten dollars, as well.)
After the direct cost of two hours of my time and the indirect cost of a rearranged schedule and psychic stress, the bill for my free lunch was settled. The upside of my errant stupidity is the price I paid will greatly diminish the probability of acting similarly stupid under similar circumstances in the future...I think. Given that human nature is infused with intractable fallibility, I hesitate to offer a guarantee.