[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
I’ve never really shoplifted before, but yesterday I accidentally stole a T-shirt from a big retail chain. Basically, I was paying for a bunch of clothing at the checkout, and noticed the cashier didn’t ring up a T-shirt at the bottom of my basket. She rang up everything else and put the stuff in a shopping bag on top of the unpaid-for T-shirt. I sort of noticed what had happened, but instead of saying anything I just walked out and went home. Now I have this T-shirt that I feel like I accidentally stole, but I also feel like it was kind of the store’s fault for not noticing it. It’s a huge chain store, so it’s not like this one shirt is going to hurt them too much. Is it fine to just keep it? I feel weird about it.
Dear Accidental Shoplifter,
I used to shoplift all the time. In fact, I went out of my way to try and steal, cheat, and scam people as much as I could — strangers or friends, no one was safe from my insatiable capacity for trickery. This was during my teenage years, and a lot of my motivation was purely sinister. I liked to do bad things specifically because they were wrong and hurtful.
Then one day I was mugged at knifepoint. I was nineteen years old and had been living in New York for about a year. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and I was getting off the subway at Third Avenue to go to work at the Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place. As I was walking up the stairs out of the station, a guy pushed me against the wall and put a steak knife in my face. He said, “I’m not joking, man! I’m not joking!” and proceeded to ask me for my cash and watch and subway tokens. I gave him what he wanted without resistance.
He let me go without injuring me (which felt especially lucky, considering a wave of subway slashings around that time), and I walked to work. I ended up going through the motions of filing a police report and trying to identify the mugger in some photos. I didn’t recognize him. I wondered if they ever could catch him. I wondered a lot about him in general, like what kind of situation could’ve pushed him to that point — where he was willing to take that kind of risk, to threaten to stab someone just for $160, a cheap watch, and three subway tokens.
By the time I got back home from the police station, I felt all the emotions flooding in. I hadn’t really felt afraid when it happened. It had all seemed sort of silly — like a dream or a joke — like, “I point this knife at you and then you give me your stuff” — it felt like a routine, which I guess it was. Now I felt angry, scared, weak, and guilty. I felt bad for the mugger, too, which really confused me. The whole thing just felt incredibly sad. When I finally walked in the door of my apartment, I broke down and cried for a while. My girlfriend comforted me. I was so glad it had been me it all happened to, and not her.
The next day, I had a new clarity about everything. The idea of stealing anything from anyone seemed absurd. I vowed never to cheat anyone again. If there was ever an obvious right or wrong choice to be made, I would go with the right one. I took the mugging — and the fact that I had gone through it without injury — as some sort of payback for all my badness, but also as a merciful warning. It was a chance to wake up and start doing what I knew was right, or I would be asking for much worse trouble.
So my personal advice for you is based on this same mindset: Go return the T-shirt. And be glad you didn’t have to get mugged in order to realize that stealing from others is bad. It’s just a T-shirt, and the big retailer might not ever notice or even care, but you do care. You cared enough to actually write me about it. That’s because this isn’t just about a T-shirt, this is about your own perception of yourself — your own principles, your own integrity, your own sense of order, and your own idealized view of the world. Once you start letting that slide too much, you slowly start to lose sense of yourself — your self-image slowly erodes — and you expect less of yourself and of others, and we all gradually fall further from our true potential as truly good beings.
Maybe shoplifting here and there doesn’t really matter that much. But at the end of the day, nothing at all really matters that much except when we decide it does. This is the whole point of having values — they make things about life matter, and they give meaning and shape to our world. Values are at work in our seemingly trivial actions (like not stealing a T-shirt), and in the obviously consequential (like not shooting a bunch of people). Our character is defined not just by how we respond to the big moments in life, but also, just as much, by how we carry ourselves through the moments that don’t matter very much — it’s a code we live by — a promise we each make to ourselves and the whole world, and we must make every effort not to break it, no matter how big or small the situation. And when we start to lose track of our own integrity, we start to lose track of the very foundation of our life and its meaning.
It takes commitment and constant effort to be good, and sometimes we might slip up as we try to live up to our ideals. But just because it isn’t easy to always be our best, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always strive and help each other in getting there. Do the right thing when it matters, and when it doesn’t matter. Do the right thing even when no one is looking. It just makes life better.
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