A Meditation Upon “Thou Shalt Not Steal”
My wallet and cell phone were stolen from my car the other day; the glove compartment was rooted through. With this kind of theft, the resultant problems are the inconvenience and the time you must spend to replace stolen cards, driver’s license, and the like. Never mind the money; that’s the least of it.
Despite the hassle, you remain at a distance from the problem. You don’t feel that personally attached to driver’s licenses and bankcards. They are all replaceable tools. The whole affair brings feelings of violation and insult and disappointment in humanity, yes, but it more or less ends there. You spend the hours and dollars necessary to correct the problem and then you let it go.
In 1968 I bought a Raleigh bicycle, made in Nottingham England. I had Raleighs since my youth, and loved the brand. This one was special. It had a Sturmey-Archer internal five-speed gear system; Sturmey-Archer only built five-speeds for about a decade.
The bike was special for another reason. I had ridden all my children on that bicycle on one of those metal child seats made with plywood back and seat covered in plaid plastic and with a black plastic seat belt. They were flimsy and would never pass muster today. For years, I rode my children all over on those seats. The last one who rode the bike to school is now thirty-five years old but he remembers trips on the back of that bicycle. We rode rain or shine; we had ponchos that flew out like superhero capes when it rained. We laughed a lot and we enjoyed being together in this special way.
In 1988, while I was living in Chicago, the bicycle was stolen in front of my house in broad daylight. I have never gotten over the loss.
It’s not the bike itself. The bike, like the driver’s license, was a tool. That bicycle was like a car; I treated it that way and I used it to commute to various places, especially during the three years I lived in a city without an automobile.
What is more painful, however, is that the bicycle was a storehouse for memory, and with its loss the memories were stolen also. I’ve had one other bicycle stolen in my life and comparison between the two thefts is instructive. The other bicycle was solely my road bike. Nobody else was wrapped up in it. Sure I loved it for a time, and it hurt to lose the money. but its loss was not indelibly etched on my mind. The Raleigh, however, bore intimate memories; it was a source of personal stories and the feelings they conjure up.
There are bigger forms of theft. Embezzlement is a sad story that usually involves broken trust between people who invested time and faith in each other. Rape and domestic violence are disgusting, terrible acts that rob a person’s dignity and steal good memories.
Everyone can recognize the wisdom of the injunction, “Thou shalt not steal,” along with the others. These are “laws” like we refer to laws of nature. They are the bedrock for human relationships and, when transgressed, cause great suffering in a community. Trespassing such commandments hurts both victim and perpetrator. The victim loses faith and trust in humanity. The perpetrator loses his humanity in the doing of the deed.
You can, however, experience violation and loss in little ways – with, say, a bicycle-shaped hole in the heart. Stealing things is wrong, but in many cases it’s not the possessions we miss. It’s the lost connections and stolen memories that hurt.
published 17 Sept 2010