Life lessons from a criminal

by Jack on August 2010

Recently my apartment was robbed – one of my roommates had a laptop stolen, while another lost a digital SLR camera. Me? I lost two laptops – one six-year old PowerBook that wasn’t in use, and my primary computer, a three year old MacBook. This is the first time that I’ve ever had personal property stolen from my home [1], so it was a new experience for me. I felt like I had a reasonable, balanced reaction to this situation, so I wanted to share what I learned.

Strangely, I didn’t feel any anger, fear, or sense of violation following this incident. While I was happy that I didn’t react very negatively, it also surprised me a little bit.

Had I become too stereotypically “Zen” and detached from “normal” human reactions? “Should” I have been reacting with rage, feelings of violation, and a fierce desire for revenge? In fact, none of those emotions sound like very much fun, so I am glad that I didn’t experience them. Instead, I observed myself responding with the following feelings.

Gratitude

Obviously, I am grateful that no one was hurt in this incident. The roommate who discovered the situation was concerned that the thief might still be in the apartment, but fortunately this wasn’t the case. I am also grateful that other valuable items in my room, like a digital camera and an audio recorder, weren’t taken.

I’m especially grateful that I had the foresight to back up all my personal data in multiple places. Due to the theft, I was able to test out my backup system in a “live fire” situation. Ultimately, I lost no data and was up and running again in less than eighteen hours. The time elapsed would have been far shorter if I’d been able to make it to the electronics store the same day. The Time Machine software from Apple worked as promised, and my new computer now has all the software, settings, and (most important) files and documents that were on the stolen computer. It’s as though the exact state of the other computer was cloned perfectly and transferred into a new, better body [2].

But what about the items that were actually stolen?

Honestly, I won’t really miss the old PowerBook – the last time I used it was a couple of years ago when my main computer was in the repair shop, and I was already frustrated by its slowness at that time.

However, I can’t pretend that I didn’t care about losing my primary computer, because in my roles as a blogger, writer, and “information worker”, I prefer to have access to my laptop most of the time – after all, inspiration can strike at any moment.

Still, it was a three and a half year old machine, and I had already been eyeing new computers over the past few months. So rather than being angry that someone stole it, I chose to be excited that I now had a very strong reason to “upgrade”. That is, to upgrade to “having a computer” from “having no computer at all”. 🙂

Compassion

One of my roommates made the point that while we’ll all recover and move on from this incident relatively easily, the person who stole from us is almost certainly living in far worse circumstances. In fact, the officer who took the police report suggested that it was probably “a junkie” who took our things, and that he sees a lot of these property crimes in our area.

People who are feeling happy, living in a state of abundance, and willing and able to contribute positively to the lives of others don’t generally risk jail time, and their personal reputation, to steal a few hundred dollars of electronics. Conversely, people who are miserable, living in a state of scarcity, and who are unable or not inclined to contribute positively to the lives of others, are far more likely to consider such a risk worthwhile.

It makes more sense to feel compassion for a person who is in such desperate circumstances as to feel they have no choice but to steal from others. It must be painful to live in such a state day after day. Whether they were taught by their life experience to behave like this, or “born bad”, it doesn’t sound like a very happy existence either way.

Even if the thieves aren’t caught for this particular incident (or caught at all), I believe they are already facing karmic consequences for their actions. Living a parasitic lifestyle that violates other peoples rights is already a painful and dismal situation to be in, and people who do this are their own worst enemies.

Abundance

In contrast with the likely circumstances of the thief, I feel very fortunate that I have enough credit card headroom to be able to acquire a new computer immediately.

Instead of giving me feelings of anger, this incident makes me want to help and teach others all the more. Imagine how the world would be if this thief, and all others like them, could have learned from an early age how to live a life of service and contribution, rather than a parasitic life of harm and negativity.

This incident has given me a new appreciation of the abundance already present in my life – supportive friends and family, educational opportunities past and present, time, financial resources, good food, interesting things to do, and so forth.

Forgiveness

It’s often said that we don’t forgive for the sake of others, but for our own sake. Holding on to feelings of resentment and anger, and thoughts of revenge or retribution hurts exactly one person – us. After this incident, I was able to work on the practice of forgiveness in a live and emotionally tense situation – after all, I really liked that computer, dammit! 🙂 – and was ultimately able to release any feelings of negativity or anger that I held toward the thief.

Impermanence

If my main computer hadn’t been stolen, I would have continued using it until it stopped working or, more likely, replaced it with a newer model. In any case, the thief took one computer that I hadn’t used in several years, and one that I was on the verge of replacing soon. Just like all other material things – including our own bodies – computers are impermanent. Eventually they break down. In this case, the impermanence manifested through a different channel, but from my subjective perspective, the outcome is the same in the end.

One thought experiment on impermanence was suggested by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits – to “see the glass as already broken”. Becoming attached to impermanent things is a recipe for suffering. Releasing attachment and recognizing the reality of impermanence is the path of wisdom.

A final thought

Of course, my reframing of this situation into a positive experience is not to be interpreted as a license for people to take advantage of me or others. While we can learn positive lessons from a “negative” experience, and forgive others after the fact for the damage they have done, it doesn’t mean that we can ever support or condone actions that harm other people.

[1] In university, I worked in a lab where things started to go missing. It turned out that the night custodian was stealing money from peoples desks, and food and drinks from our fridge. We eventually caught him using a webcam and some free motion-detection software. 🙂

[2] Transhumanists take note – this is your dream. 😉

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby August 17, 2010 at 14:02

So sorry to hear about the break in. We went through our own a few streets away in April when my netbook was stolen (http://perusals.wordpress.com/2010/04/27/the-risks-we-take/). I went through a similar gamut of emotions: gratitude that it wasn’t worse, sympathy for the person who thought this type of action was necessary, etc… I will say though, I was PISSED that they took my laundry quarters. Still upset about that.

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Jack August 17, 2010 at 14:31

Thanks – you certainly know what it’s like! I do feel kind of strange that I am not more angry or upset. The main issues I’ve been grappling with is the potential for identity theft, and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

Why do you think you’re more upset about the quarters than the computer? It’s obviously not a question of monetary value…

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