One Sunday I was in line at a Safeway when I overheard a teen telling his mom to check the receipt because he thought the clerk neglected to ring-up a particular item.
“That’s very honest of that young man,” I thought. When I heard the mother telling the store clerk about a blackout they had at church earlier, asking if the store had experienced a power failure too, I made the connection. “Oh, they just came from church. It figures.”
The next morning I was leaving a Food Lion when I greeted a stranger pushing his son in a cart with a kiddie car attached to the front. The man smiled kindly. As he reached down to pull the little boy out of the car, I smiled and greeted the boy, apparently two or three-years-old. As the small boy steadied himself on his feet I noticed a new bag of toys he was holding. His father looked away.
“Oh, you got new toys,” I said, still smiling. I remembered hearing of mothers hiding stolen objects in their babies diapers, and remembered stories of parents walking their children out of a store wearing stolen shoes. “Some of their moral compass will be off the mark,” I thought. “Their sense of right and wrong will be different from the norm.”
I walked home thinking about the individuals who’s moral compass was corrupted generations before they were even born. Grandparents who lied, cheated, and stole – and justified it – for instance, certainly might raise children with those same survival skills and beliefs. Parents who raise their children with “anti-government-screw-the-system” sentiments also are likely to raise kids with out-law sensibilities. Knowing right from wrong gets a little tricky when your primary provider has justified wrong-doing, and even made it a way of life.
I hailed from a tradition of flouting convention, challenging the system, and establishing new traditions. But I had a girlfriend who trained me better. I remembered walking through the grocery store with my best friend, sampling fruit or opening a soda. She would say I was being trifling and if I got arrested she would not stand by me. Her mother, although not a churchgoer, was adamant about following rules and obeying the law.
I outgrew that trifling habit, conceding that sampling cherries against store policy was hardly worth the risk. So what if the store might be selling me sour or tasteless cherries made to look sweet to fool me into buying them. Never mind that the store was making me pay 50 cents for a soda it probably paid 30 cents for. In my mind, this was out-right exploitation of my purse. Stealing, so this reasoning went, was a mild form of defiance against a corrupt system. It was a swipe at Capitalism. I always paid my taxes – to the best of my ability, but my accountant, whose mindset was the same as mine, happened to believe that the system taxed us poor people harder than it taxed the rich. So, we should take whatever license we could to pay as little as possible. She managed to zero out all my income one year, telling me that’s how the rich white folks do it. I realized the rich white folks had attorneys to fight the IRS. I did not. I began taking my tax work to a professional service.
It would take years for me to recalibrate my moral compass, scraping off the rust of my elders’ resentment against “the system”, and clearing away their disdain for convention. Admittedly, their experiences with the system, convention, and traditions had been harsh, confining, confusing. My experiences were different, and once I realized this, I realized I could adjust my internal compass accordingly.
I ended up moving to a neighborhood where sampling is the norm. Some stores set out samples around the store (Whole Foods and Fresh Market). To keep up with them the Safeway manager in this community assured me that anytime I want to sample anything to just let someone know and they would open it for me.