Maybe 45 years ago, I ripped off King’s Department Store. I pocketed Hershey’s chocolate almond candy from the back right-hand corner of the big-box building. I walked in, headed straight for the shelves of M&Ms and Reese’s cups, grabbed the brown-wrapped, red-edged bar, tucked it into my cut-offs, covered it with my raincoat and bolted.

The decision — if it was one, rather than an impulse — took only seconds. The heist itself took about three minutes, tops. I have lived with the unrest, the sense of betraying myself, the shame ever since. It was hardly worth it.

I mentioned this transgression in confession as a teenager, was given a fitting penance of five Hail Marys and three Our Fathers, and was told to replace it. I rode my black three-speed English bike to Town Landing Market, bought the exact same gold-lettered package, pedaled back to King’s and threw it on the shelf. But the guilt, the feeling of “there must be something horribly wrong with me,” the sin of that distant moment lives on.

Perhaps, it has occurred to me lately, we are asked not to steal not only because it is wrong to take what does not belong to us but also because it disturbs any possibility of inner peace.

A meditation teacher was once asked, “Do we have to give up our vices in order to meditate?” He answered, “It’s really hard to meditate after a day of killing and pilfering.”

Recently I stole a friend’s secret. Person A told Person B how excited he was to have a new job, and that Person B should not say anything just yet. Person B told me. Without mentioning names or disclosing sources, I repeated the news to Person C who lives in Kansas (how could that be a problem?). Person C shrieked, “Oh. I know exactly who you’re talking about. He’s a good friend of my husband’s.”

My face froze. I knew that she knew how I knew. And I had that same wrenching belly squeeze that tortured me after I escaped into King’s parking lot all those years ago. That time only my conscience caught me. This time I was doubly caught: by my more adult scruples and by the woman who knew the man whose news I had lifted. It’s really true — appropriating what is not ours is not good.

The other day, it happened in reverse. I heard a person speak my words, my quote, my writing, as if it were his own, my intellectual property plagiarized and claimed to be the creativity of another. Ouch. And perhaps for me, touch?

Just today, in a big group of friends, one woman blabbed on and on, some truths, some hearsay and some lies about the behavior and character of another. “She did this. Can you believe she even said that? And why would anyone do it? She should never have. “

Today I kept my mouth shut. Today I did not want to rob the integrity of another. It might have felt yummy in the moment, like any jumbo Hershey’s bar, to snitch on her reputation. But tomorrow, after a gossip binge, there would have been that same dull gut hangover. I would wake up saying, “Why? Why did I do it?”

It seems true that when we steal, we suffer. Perhaps it is not only from on high that “thou shalt not steal” makes sense. If we believe that peace on Earth begins at home, that peace on Earth begins with inner peace, then perhaps “thou shalt not steal” is a very sweet commandment.

 

Susan Lebel Young, author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart,” teaches mindfulness, meditation and yoga and may be reached at: [email protected]