03/27/2012 09:32 am ET Updated May 26, 2012

Are You Decent?

Being a decent, patriotic American is not about grand gestures or emotive pledges. It's about doing what is right, as a respectful member of our society, even when you think no one is watching. It's doing right especially when it's harder than doing what's easy. And it's doing right because we consider how our actions affect the lives of other citizens within our nation.

In what might be our country's earliest fable, George Washington did the decent thing when asked if he cut down the cherry tree. "I cannot tell a lie" he replied. He didn't say, "I was nowhere near that tree!" or "I plead the 5th!" or "Tree? What tree?" or "I think it was the Adams boy. He was showing off his new axe to the Indian kids" or a host of other avoidance tactics, lies and deceptions that might have gotten him out of the mess he was in. He didn't plead "Not Guilty" with the wood chips still fresh in his knickers. And I'm guessing young George told the truth not because his parents would welcome the news, but because of the responsibility and respect he had to and for himself and his Higher Life Force. Every day we have dozens of opportunities to follow old George's example and do the right thing. We have chances to show the respect we have for ourselves and others, promote our common welfare and act like decent American citizens.

Two friends from college rely on, and are often disappointed by, the decency (or lack thereof) of fellow Americans. They are wonderful, loving, generous women and moms who happen to have children confined to wheelchairs. Their families are impeded on a regular basis by those who park in the designated handicapped spots illegally, or park in the zones next to the spots making it impossible for the parents to set up their wheelchair ramps. If we simply thought about our fellow Americans, rather than rationalize our entitlement, our Union would certainly be more perfect. Families of the physically challenged don't have license plates or plastic signs to hang from their rear view mirrors that make them healthy. It is an act against our democracy when any of us take liberties that we don't deserve. And sometimes, showing the American "all for one, one for all" spirit is as simple as parking yourself in (literally and metaphorically) the right space.

We left England way back, in large part, because we were tired of others who took from us, making respect and equality a wish rather than reality. Our founding fathers believed in promoting the general welfare of all of our United States' people. And they inherently knew the key to this was self-respect and decency. Without both, all of the laws on the planet couldn't keep us united.

If I've learned anything in my spiritual quest, it's that doing the right big things comes out of doing the right day-to-day things every opportunity I get. Decency is not cutting off the butt face in the grocery store parking lot, and not vilifying him in the first place. Decency is asking someone in passing how he is rather than acting like he doesn't exist or is simply on the planet to serve me. Decency is helping a stranger, especially when I think I'm too tired or self-important or busy to do it. And decency for me is looking at the day at the end of it to celebrate the good and consider ways I might have been able to do it better. Decency is not making excuses for the ethical responsibilities I have or denying or diluting them.

God gave me a body so that I would know where my life ends and someone else's begins. The God I know wants me to live a life of respect and kindness and service. He certainly didn't tell me I'm in the clear as long as I can get away with it. I don't park in handicapped spots. No matter how busy or late I am, I need to let others merge into traffic. Holding the door for someone else makes me a better person. Treating the cashier at the drug store, the bellman at the hotel, the flight attendant and the CEO all with the same level of respect makes me spiritually stronger. Realizing that there is a God and I'm not He/She/It keeps my humility in check, and makes me grateful.

I learned long ago not to use God to justify my actions, to act like I'm superior to anyone else, or to rationalize my false need to control the lives of my fellow man and woman. Instead, I try my level best to cultivate my decency, and pray for other Americans to do the same.

There's enough space in the Union for all of us, provided we realize we're in this together.

United we stand. Divided we fail.

Sarah O'Leary is an author, armchair historian, motivational speaker, humorist and marketing expert. She can be reached via email,