“Your stories always make me cry,” my tax accountant told me last month as she enumerated the checks I had received from various publications.
“Yeah, well,” I said stammering at her early estimations of my taxes owed, “It looks like it’s going to be my turn to cry today.”
Taxes often make us cry. And it was no different 15 years ago when a young church member approached me asking for help with his taxes. Phil was a new member who was demonstrating a leadership many found inspiring. I was happy to help him.
As he positioned his pencil over our worksheet, I began asking the typical interview questions. In moments, we’d found our way to the most discouraging part of his financial picture. Phil made good money, but had paid very little taxes during the previous year.
I told him he shouldn’t worry; after all, he owned a home and had child-care expenses. But my comforting words would prove premature.
“OK, how about your child-care costs?” I asked.
He threw out what seemed to be an indiscriminate estimate.
“OK,” I said, enunciating my reply, as I knew his mother-in-law did the family child care. “You paid the kids’ grandmother that much?”
“No, but isn’t that about what most people pay?” he asked.
“Phil, the IRS doesn’t work that way.” I explained that his claim needed to be the actual dollars he had paid.
Nevertheless, he penciled in a number.
“How about contributions?”
He shrugged and volunteered a figure of about $100 a week. Again, I knew we were talking rough estimates.
“So,” I said, “You should have the receipts from the church?”
He shrugged again explaining that he’d always thrown cash in the collection plate, never bothering to record the amount on an offering envelope. He assured me he didn’t contribute for tax purposes — only for God.
As he penciled in yet another estimate, I had a sinking feeling his boat had sprung a big leak in some deep waters.
We have a saying in the hospital: “If you didn’t chart it, you didn’t do it.” The saying embodies the idea we can claim integrity in our job, but at the end of the day, integrity still seeks definition and measurement.
Phil claimed integrity in the strongest of voices. But his protest was one of entitlement. Phil was certain that everyone — including the IRS — should trust him just because he said so. By refusing to allow his integrity to be measured, he was risking being labeled the thing he most detested: a cheat.
Each year, thousands of us — even people of faith — give way to the temptation of naming their own figures and not just on our tax forms. Yet, the temptation isn’t really so much about dollars as it is about placing ourselves in authority.
I recalled an old story about a woman who is offered $1,000 for illicit relations with a rich playboy. When the woman agrees too quickly, he stammers trying to adjust his price.
“Er, uh, I meant $100?” he countered.
“Absolutely not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”
“Well, he said, I thought we’d already established what kind of woman you are and we’d gone to haggling over the price.”
When I left that day, Phil was still haggling with his integrity. I’m not sure what he ever decided to put on his return. But whatever it was, I can’t help but wonder whether he would ever discover there just aren’t any deductions for being a person of integrity, only additions.