Sheila Heti: Sinning and getting away with it

A friend once told me that she had to make a decision to stop shoplifting, because otherwise she would have shoplifted forever. It had never occurred to me that this was something you'd want to promise yourself: No more shoplifting. Why would I stop, when I was so good at it? Why pay retail, when you can not pay at all?

There are simple rules for being good at shoplifting, which every shoplifter knows:

  1. Be convinced, in your heart, that the thing you are taking already belongs to you, and that no one deserves it more.
  2. Feel annoyed that it costs so much anyway.
  3. Make eye contact with people, for only guilty people look away.
  4. Never rush out of a store.
  5. Always have an imperious air.

I knew that stealing was a sin, but like all sinners, I had certain boundaries that I would not cross, which made my stealing seem moral. I would never steal from a sole proprietor business, only huge stores, like department stores or chains. I would never steal something I only half-wanted. I would never steal something that was actually expensive. Stealing make-up felt the most justifiable; if the culture coerced me into thinking I needed a $17 eyeliner, the culture should have to pay for it. No one needs eyeliner - only the oppressed - and the oppressed should be allowed to steal.

Every stealer has a feeling of entitlement. Whenever I wondered why stealing was bad, I always came back to that feeling. It was hard to believe that Loblaws suffered from a chocolate bar that was not paid for. But it did seem to me like this feeling of entitlement - and stealing only heightened it - was probably not a good operating principle.

It's really hard to stop doing something you're good at. There are so few things in the world one is actually good at! It's hard to stop when you've never been caught. But to go until you're caught? What is stupider than that?

One day I asked my friend - the one once who told me she had to decide to stop shoplifting - how old she had been when she decided.

"Ten," she replied.

I was a whole lot older than ten. I told myself: Enough. It had been fun feeling cocky about what I could get away with, but all of that cockiness was completely spoiled by the knowledge that a ten-year-old was a better person than I was.

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