The warm colors of morning glow make the pine tree sing in orange and pink, in harmony with reflections on the water and the light show in the clouds. The air is so humid you could cut it with a chainsaw, which makes the color of light especially pleasing. Sunrise on the dock is especially wonderful as I deeply fill my lungs with fresh, pine-scented Adirondack air. Moments pondering life from the dock are my favorite.
Living is like a racetrack driver on a high-speed track, making countless subtle corrections to avoid crashes and make it to the end of the race. Which is why I find it a good idea for us to re-evaluate ourselves from time to time.
Have you ever caught yourself having thoughts about things that, if you were to act on them, mean you would be seriously compromised? We all have some random evil thoughts, but maturity means not acting on them. But where exactly is the line?
To be compromised has different meanings in different situations, but essentially it means you’ve caved in on your ethics. The CIA would say a spy being compromised means they have been found out.
Testing Our Ethics
As humans, we are always facing tests of our ethics, tests of who we think we are. We tend to allow ourselves excuses to make what we’re doing justifiable. And sometimes the things we do are justified. Other times, they may be unethical, illegal, downright nasty, immoral, or worse.
There is a line in the sand. We have to decide if we cross the line. Sometimes we cross the line, realize our stupidity, and try hard to unwind our mistakes.
Sometimes the line is well-defined, and we still have no issue crossing it. Going 65 miles per hour in a 55 zone is a great example. Though there will be consequences, most of us are willing to pay that ticket should we get busted.
Breaking the Law
The law is one line most believe should never be crossed — though we tell ourselves it’s okay to speed. Or maybe fish without a license, or forget a seat belt. Yet most of us would never consider sticking up a convenience store, or even slipping a candy bar into our pocket. Most of us never face crossing the line of the law. But we do find ourselves crossing lines we should never cross.
When one of my boys was young, we realized the grocery store had given him three dollars too much in change. To make a point (at great inconvenience), we made a trip back to the store to give them their three dollars. They were shocked, but I needed my son to know it wasn’t ours to keep. We worked very hard while raising the kids to show them which lines never get crossed.
But when is crossing the line acceptable?
Is Stealing OK?
Is finding a photo on the Internet and using it without permission acceptable? Is downloading songs or movies from an illegal site acceptable? Is copying another person’s idea or artwork acceptable? Most young people today consider those things to be normal, even though the creators of the content aren’t getting paid. They often justify it with “Everyone does it” or “They have enough money and don’t need more.” Neither is a very good excuse for stealing. And even though it’s not stealing a physical item from a store, it’s still stealing, right?
Someone once told me that lines are there for a reason, and if you cross them, you will eventually cross other lines and get deeper into the dark side. Each time, we rationalize it. Prisons are filled with people who crossed lines, after which they tried worse things, then crossed lines beyond the point of no return. I’m told it’s rare to find someone in prison who believes they deserve to be there.
Most of us don’t face crossing big lines, but little tiny lines.
Is it okay to slam someone on social media and say things you wouldn’t say to their face? Is it okay to hide out behind your computer and watch things you would never want people to know you watched? Is it okay to talk behind someone’s back?
Lying to an Advertiser
I can remember a time when a frame company asked my advice about advertising. I stood to make several thousand dollars over a year, but they asked me about a competitor. I could have easily told them all the reasons not to buy the competitor’s ad space, but I had to tell them the truth. The competitor was good, and, in that case, it was a better place for the advertiser to be. I never did get any of that ad money, and they spent tens of thousands over years with my competitor. But if I had crossed that line, would the lie be deeper next time?
What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? — Mark 8:36
Highlighting a Competitor
Once, at my magazine Radio Ink, we were publishing a “Most Influential Women” issue, and the name of my biggest competitor came up as someone my editors thought should be on the list. But they quickly discounted the idea of awarding her the prize — because she was a competitor. It was a moment when I had to ask myself if I should cross the line. After all, no one would ever know other than my editors, and no one would ever expect me to highlight a competitor. But my heart said she deserved it, and I wanted to show my employees that we always have to do the right thing, no matter what. So my competitor appeared as number one on the list and was on the cover of my magazine. I had to take a deep breath to do it, but it was the right thing to do.
I’m often tempted to copy an idea, but I don’t — and it can be frustrating when I see my own ideas copied by competitors. It’s tempting to say something derogatory when I’m asked about it, but in reality, when people are doing good things, they deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments. If what they are doing is helping others, and it’s a good product, then the right thing for me to do is to be willing to say so. Will I go out of my way to promote a competitor? I have in the past, because I believe in abundance. There is room for us all. Plus being challenged makes me work to stay three steps ahead at all times, and it gives me some pride knowing that my ideas are spreading.
What about the lines you are crossing in your life?
Most of them are just little lines, but they can easily destroy you. There have been moments in my life when I’ve said something bad about a competitor and later felt awful for doing it. And as I look back over my long career, the things I worried about never turned out to be problems. There are dozens of competitors I don’t even care about anymore, and what I feared most never came true. In reality, I’ll win some and lose some, and so will you.
There was a time in my life when I loved gossip. That stopped when I almost lost a friendship because something I shared “confidentially” with someone got shared with that friend. Since that time, many years ago, gossip stopped. I now avoid trash talk because it’s crossing the line, and because it always bites you.
Avoiding Evil Corporations
In my younger years, I worked for a big evil corporation that asked many of their employees to do things that were evil. But they were “little” things. For instance, when doing radio contests and picking the 10th caller, they asked us to keep answering the phone till we got someone who didn’t sound like a small child, because their audience was adult women. We waited for the right-sounding voice, even if it was the 20th call. It seemed harmless and practical, but it was flat out wrong. I did it because I was told to do it, but I didn’t like it, and in hindsight, I should have resigned when asked to do it. When it went to court, I was instructed to lie about it, but when on the stand, I told the truth, because I had already crossed one line too many. They lost all of their broadcast licenses because their little black spot had grown and grown, and their practices destroyed a billion-dollar business.
Since I started my own business, I’ve tried very hard not to become a big evil corporation like the one I worked for, though I can see how the temptation to cross a line is something we face daily. Recently, an attorney told me I could get out of a contract if I stretched the truth just a little. Though the consequences would be expensive, I refused. I could not have lived with myself. Life is too short. But I face decisions every day where lines could be crossed. Chances are you do too.
Little things don’t seem to matter, yet they ultimately do because they place a little tiny black spot of negativity into the soul. Then these black spots grow and grow until the whole self is polluted and line-crossing becomes part of who we are.
When Is It OK?
Would I cross the line for my family? Would I lie to keep my kid out of jail? Would I lie to keep myself out of jail? I won’t know till I face those things, but I tell myself I’d have to be truthful no matter what. But that’s just me.
A Tax Bill
I once had a chance to lie to the IRS and get out of a massive fine, but I chose not to, and it took me a decade to pay it off. Though I hurt myself, I felt it was the right thing to do. Most line-crossers would justify themselves, saying the government has too much money and this won’t hurt them a bit.
Life is ever-changing, and our goal in life should be to shed the bad and embrace the good. I hope to be always making corrections. I don’t like hiding anything because I don’t want any little black spots growing inside me. But I do have to admit I’ll sometimes not tell my wife if I ate a brownie when she wasn’t around when I’m on a diet. But I probably should. 🙂
Perfection for humans is impossible. Growth and improvement are possible. We all do stupid things we regret; I have too many to list here. But the goal is to not repeat mistakes, and to learn lessons so fewer lines are crossed in the future.
Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoons with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? The little red devil can be pretty creative to make us cross the line. It’s human nature to be seduced “just this one time.” But when you give in, the little dark spot grows inside of you, until it consumes you.
What about you?
Have you crossed lines you regret?
Do you find yourself up against little ethical decisions every day?
We’ve all done it, in some form. I’ve lived to regret things I can never repair. I’ve lost friendships and business relationships. All of it could have been prevented if I had just been more thoughtful about the consequences of crossing the line.
I’m not high or mighty. I’m a broken man, I make stupid mistakes, but my goal in life is to not repeat the mistakes I make, and to stop crossing the line.
PS: I’m pretty excited about pastel painting and learning all about it. I love the brilliance of color and the control, and to learn, I’ll be attending (and hosting) Pastel Live this August. It’s an online conference featuring the very best pastel artists on earth as instructors and mentors. Tonight is when the early-bird price goes up. I hope to see you there.
If you want to go to Russia with me, we still plan to go, and a couple of seats have opened up. There isn’t much time to get a visa, but there is time. It’s the painting trip of a lifetime (with some touring), and we won’t be repeating it. Come have some fun with us.
This fall I’m leading a group through Vienna and Berlin for a behind-the-scenes art tour on our annual Fine Art Trip. We still have some slots open if you’re eager to get away!
And my Fall Color Week retreat occurs this fall in the Adirondacks. A week of painting brilliant color is good for the soul!
Last, we’re starting to talk up Realism Live, our virtual conference on realism that replaces our in-person Fine Art Convention & Expo this year only. Hope to see you there.
Your article is RIGHT ON! Thanks for reminding us that we must think about what we do in all circumstances, and whether or not we are going to cross a line. We need a renewal of this attitude in our culture these days, and hopefully there are enough of us who can influence the next generation about ethics, responsibility and moral issues.
Wow. You even lie about lying. You can’t seem to keep your origin “stories” and “narratives” straight. Your every blog post and press release is riddled with lies. Jack Jackson? Since when? Interesting that the only Jack Jackson (a comic book artist) of note is now dead, so your alleged mentorship with him cannot be verified. Do you ever get tired of being a pathological liar? It must be a lot of work and mental stress, keeping all your lies straight, and avoiding all of the people and entities you’ve screwed over. You are the reason that plein air as an art form has become a joke in this country, riddled with artists that you push based only on how much money you make off of them, or what demographic they open up for you, because you don’t care about, and are not even capable of recognizing, legitimate work as opposed to schlock. You are just a greedy, unethical used car salesman, and that’s all you’ll ever be. You have unapologetically screwed over so many people that have worked for and with you, you shouldn’t be able to sleep at night, but you can, because you have no conscience. You are one of the worst things to ever happen to American art, and if others in the art world have finally moved against you because they are fed up with your arrogance, greed, and unethical business practices, and you are now finding yourself limited in your ability to continue extorting and manipulating artists, AND the outcome of plein air events, good on them. Any plein air festival with a shred of decency or dignity left should refuse to be associated with you going forward. Your trips and conventions are in decline because people are sick and tired of your grift, and of you personally, because you never stop lying and making people feel like the marks that you see them as. You deserve to be a broken, and broke, man. That’s your karma for being a greedy, lying scumbag whose entire business model is to prey upon the hopes and dreams of aspiring artists. You don’t help anyone. You never have. You only take advantage of them. You aren’t a teacher. You are just a snake oil salesman. Always have been, always will be. You have nothing of real value to offer anyone.
While I agree with almost everything you have said. I’m not sure what you mean by, “Stealing an Idea” If I admire something someone else has done and see that I could incorporate that technique in some way into my work, I see nothing bad about that. That is how most of us learn by adding to the history of art. Did Braque steal from Picasso or Picasso from Braque? Again I don’t think there was stealing involved so much as the collaboration of two very talented artists. Did they compete? Surely and that likely made each stretch the boundaries of what they were attempting to do. In a similar way I’m sure Monet influenced Renoir. How could that not be?
Every Sunday I look forward to our Sunday Coffee Break !
And every Sunday I thank God that I have been given the opportunity of sharing your message with my friends and family !
May he give you the best health and keep you safe.
You are a blessing to all of us.
I love reading your thoughts, Eric. It’s so great finding someone who is ethical in this present world!
Thanks for this column! I once lost a friendship over a not too small compromise when I failed to tell the truth and it not only crossed the line, it broke me inside and convinced me to never back away from the truth again!! The loss of that friendship and the excuses I used to try to make up for that “lie” are now so ridiculous to me and my regrets will never recoup the loss. Even the truth may bite me in the ass once in a while, but I’d rather deal with that than deal with another lie, another loss that cannot be recovered. Your column reiterated why that is so true!
Eric, I think that the best thing that you are in life…..even more than being the incredible Art encourager that you are……is a witness for God’s
Good. No one I have ever heard has more courage to broach the toughest of subjects in life concerning our very souls! Yours, mine, ours – broken, all of us. Thank you for your voice! Every day I pray that God will take who I am and what I have and make the most of me to His Purposes. It’s the only way that I stay on the balance beam.
I just discovered you and I am very happy. This is the first Sunday Coffee email I receive and I enjoyed it. I don’t regret my subscription. I just love it. I usually speak French, so please, excuse my English. But I think that you’ll understand what I mean. I would have love to be with your group in the Adirondac but covid is still there and as I leave in Quebec, I cannot cross the border. Maybe another time. Take care.
Thank you once again for a meaningful post. It came at the right time when I needed to know I was doing the right thing. I’ll “see” you at the Pastel Live. So looking forward to it.
Your country’s enemy is looking for one of your spies. You know where the spy is hiding. When they ask whether you know where the spy is, do you tell the truth?
There are some laws/rules/traditions which are still with us that make no sense. Do you turn right on a red if it’s clear to do so? Some states say sure, some say no.
Thank you Eric for this refreshing perspective. I’m so glad that you hold to absolute truths.
When approaching this subject with someone else I’m afraid to hear them say something like, “That may be your truth but it’s not mine.” I cant understand how it’s possible for anything to actually work that way.
As a fellow bible believer I place myself under the authority of God and His Word and He helps me to make right choices and never contradicts His Word or His nature.
Thank you for raising this subject and dealing thoughtfully with it.
(from Don Dolton’s Fine Arts)
Sadly, almost every tragedy and crisis, other than acts of God and Nature, has its origins in some form of unethical behavior. If ethics played a dominant role in everyone’s life, criminal behavior would be rare, elected officials would be scrupulously honest and driving would become a pleasure rather than a peril. To quote the old familiar song lyrics, “What a wonderful world it would be!”
I love this post, it is not only timely in a crazy world, but such a great reminder of how we need to be honest with our own selves always. Thanks again Eric, you are often the voice of reason. Compassionate soul you are indeed.
Thank you for this message! I sent it to my whole grown family and hope they use the wisdom for their children. I also sent it
To my friends. You are so honest and true I feel you’re one of my friends.
God Bless you and your family,
I so enjoy your words of wisdom! I once worked in an HR department for the most prestigious company in a near-by town, paid the highest wages around. As a frontline worker, anyone applying for a job had to get by me first … I was instructed to grade people A, B, C, D using a light pencil mark in the upper right corner of their application; criteria was their age, weight, name recognition (life in a small town), appearance, etc. This bothered me tremendously, and there were many other unethical practices, so I ended up leaving. At another large national employer, it was all about the sales, do anything to suck as much money as possible from members … my entire working career had nuances of some sort that I did not agree with … I was a single mother raising two children on my own, so you do what you have to do …sadly our world has turned into a survival of the fittest … thank you for sharing such a thought provoking topic
Thank you for writing this very important article. I see artists copying work off of the internet and I try to tell them Not to do that for all of the various reasons. Some of them listen but most don’t . I feel sad that personal ethics are slipping away. I do hope that your article helps to get folks to think about what they are doing when they copy another artists work. Without their permission, it is stealing.
An excellent sermon. Means so much to this life. Thanks.
Eric-SO REFRESHING to read and relate to your truthfulness! In this world gone mad, I cling to the hope there are more that strive for that honesty than what is constantly being reported. Well written as always! Thank you for sharing🤗
There are rewards on earth and rewards in heaven. Heavens rewards are worth more!
How I would love to join your trip! I was born in Berlin, lved there through the war, became an Austrian through marriage, but now I am 1o1 years old and live in Canada since 1951. I love painting, give away my pictures.
Trust me, your wife knows about the brownie 😊. Sometimes going 65 in a 55mph zone keeps you from getting run over by those going 75 and you are not causing problems by blocking traffic. The trouble with “just this once” is it gets easier the next time.
I enjoyed your article very much. One question artists have is when is something “copying” and when is it “inspiration”? I have a file full of images from the web that I admire, and I look through them when I’m thinking about ideas. Often I will use a color scheme similar to one image, composition from another, etc. as my starting points. Who knows what my painting will look like when it’s done. I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with working that way. I don’t closely copy other people’s photos without permission, though I may look at a group of them in order to better understand anatomy, etc.
Trust me, your wife knows about the brownie 😊. Sometimes going 65 in a 5ph zone keeps you from getting run over by those going 75 and you are not causing problems by blocking traffic. The trouble with “just this once” is it gets easier the next time.
I look forward to your Sunday posts! Thanks for sharing!