Okay, so the other day on the way home, a woman driving in the opposite direction to me on a snowy country road flagged me down. She and her friends told me they were almost out of gas and asked for help. "There's a gas station just back a bit," I told her. "I know," she said, "But the electricity is off."
I quickly assessed the situation. She'd had enough gas to let the car idle while she spoke to the driver ahead of me and then me. So she'd have enough to get back to the main road, where she and her friends could be warm and dry while they solved their problem. I mentally worked out the logistics: distance home and back with gas, someone to assist me, time this would take. This wasn't going to work. Better for her to use what gas she had left and get back to a warm and dry place. This was not an emergency, but a convenience. When I said, "I have no gas and no easy way to get some," she drove off to flag down the next person.
Done. Finis. Shrug shoulders and move on.
But I felt a bit conflicted. My childhood training insisted that if I can help it is my duty to do so - not my responsibility, but my duty. Yet I knew there was a deeper morality. Knotted in the conflict were other subtle factors: sympathy or lack of it, judgement about their wisdom, fear that they could harm themselves further, dislike of being taken advantage of ... the list goes on. It could take me a lifetime to untangle those knots.
In the end, I needed to remember that if the women were in genuine danger, even from their own poor choices, each one of us who came along that snowy road would have jumped in without hesitation, without a thought. We live out here and are aware how very quickly things can get serious.
This day I didn't help. Another day I might have. Yet neither choice can be used as a measurement of my morality. Authentic morality doesn't rise out of rules that I must live up to, it rises out of the deep loving connection I have - that we all have - with the divine and with each other. We are all one. Spiritual practice and reminders like "Love your neighbour" can put us in rhythm with with the truth of that unity. But truth itself - the unity itself - is what guides our actions. Our job is to connect with that truth, trust it to direct us, and let it untangle any inner conflict.
The correct moral action to take on that day was to not be the solution to their problem. It was to bridge the gap between "I should" and "I am."