Monday, February 28, 2011

The Hand in the Cookie-Jar

I don't remember the first thing I stole. I do, however, remember the reason I started. Unlike most teenage shoplifters, I didn't steal for the thrill of it. It wasn't like the one time in high-school when Darin stole a Miami Dolphins beanie from a sports store to impress his friends.

I stole to hurt others. I felt so badly about myself, my appearance, my lack of possessions, that I wanted others to feel my pain as well. I remember stealing some Covergirl foundation from my friend Emily's dresser when she left her bedroom for a moment. I didn't have any makeup at home. I snatched Umbro soccer shorts from popular girl's Laura gym bag while on a 'bathroom break.' I was tired of wearing thick sweatpants to P.E. I stole lip gloss and jewelry from someone else. The list goes on and on. I went out of my way to find others' possessions available for the taking. Could I have gotten these things if I had just asked my mom for them? Yeah, I think so. But it was easier to take from others who had them, to punish them for having things that I didn't. They deserved it.

I began to steal small trinkets from teenybopper jewelry stores and pharmacies. Instead of feeling an adrenaline rush post-theft, a terrible guilty sadness overwhelmed my heart. Sometimes I would walk back in the store and slyly return the item. Another time I buried a beaded hemp necklace (remember those?) in my backyard. I didn't want a reminder of my crime, a symbol of my self-hatred, staring me in the face every time I looked into a mirror. Usually, I kept the things I took.

One day, my mother found a small bottle of hairspray that I stole from the salon we visited. I begged for forgiveness, swore I would never do it again, and finally confessed to also stealing $10 from her purse. She sadly took me back to the salon the next day so that I could apologize and return the hairspray. The manager and his assistant weren't angry; they felt badly for me, and appreciated my sincere apology. I was sincerely sorry, but I was sorriest for being caught. I knew I would have to act carefully from now on.

Later that year, I went on a beach trip with five of my girlfriends. While on a shopping trip to the outlet malls, we stopped into Claire's Boutique. I bought a cute headband and as I walked out of the store, I picked up some hair snap clips and slipped them into my bag. My friends and I walked down the sidewalk and I felt a hand on my shoulder. The manager. She took my bag, looked in, and accused me of stealing. “I didn't! I didn't!” Yes, I did. She took me back into the shop as my friends looked on with their mouths gaping. As I waited in the storage room riddled with absolute terror, she called the police. A huge policeman arrived soon after, took my information, and instructed me to leave. The manager told me never to step foot in her store again, and insisted I keep the headband I purchased as a reminder of what I had done. Instead, I broke it and threw it in the trash as soon as I returned to my friends sitting on the curb. “It was a mistake,” I mumbled. They looked at me with suspicion, but didn't say anything. I was nauseated, shaking, and asked if we could return to the hotel so I could call my parents. They never said anything to me about the trouble I was in, no one asked if I was okay. Ever. These were the same friends that laughed when the boys at school would taunt me with 'fat' and 'ugly,' so I didn't expect concern from them. In no way do I blame these girls for the path I chose to take, but I do wonder what my choices would have been if I had surrounded myself with different people.

I lay alone in the hotel bed until my parents arrived after the two hour drive. I don't remember anything about the drive home besides weeping until my head ached. We pulled up into the drive and I slumped into my home. Two of my sisters were there. They looked up at me. I will never forget the look of distress and concern on their faces. I felt humiliated, and did for months until I worked off the $350 fine my parents received as a result of my selfish behavior. I can honestly say that from that fateful day at the beach, I was not even tempted to steal ever again, and I never did.

Well, I never stole material goods ever again.

Still infested with self-loathing, I saw every beautiful, confident, or talented female as a threat. When a guy friend would tell me about his latest crush, I would wonder why he didn't like me. I didn't even have to be interested in him to feel this way. Every girl was a threat to my ultimate happiness. I began to withhold compliments. After all, you don't want her to realize just how pretty her hair is! It might go to her head. Her beauty takes away the little that I have. Keep it close, Louise. Don't let her know that she is beautiful. That compliment will whittle yours away.

I didn't see, as I see now, that love begets love. Beauty begets beauty. Friendship begets friendship. The more I give, the more I (and the world) receive. I am reminded of Dostoevsky’s immortal words, “Beauty will save the world.”

Withholding encouragement, praise, and admiration is little better than stealing. For me, it held the same motivation, and created the same result. It's theft of another's dignity. It's theft of what every woman deserves. I didn't yet comprehend how freeing and wonderful it was to help others recognize their own beauty. I wish I could tell you how I came to realize this, but it was so gradual that I didn't even realize when or how the change occurred.

One day years later, a friend likened me to the Bird of Paradise flower. She said that my presence and talents brought out the best in others without overpowering them. She insisted that I enhance others' beauty. I was astounded; this thought never crossed my mind, but I suddenly realized that I had finally broken free. No longer was I menaced by the goodness and beauty of others; I reveled in it. Amazing.

I've learned that we can't miss an opportunity to compliment or encourage others, whether it be about appearances, talents, gifts, abilities, or makeup technique. Every time I lift up another person, I lift myself up as well. I actually feel better about myself and my gifts, no matter how small they may be in comparison to those of another.

I hope that my experience differs from yours. It still hurts to remember the emotions I experienced during that dark time. So why did I blog about an experience that I haven't shared with my closest friends? Well... I encourage you to never waste a compliment, and to give your positive thoughts a voice. Be lavish with admiration, love, and respect. Since I made the gradual change, I feel happy, even overjoyed by myself! I am grateful for my beauty, my talents, and my possessions. I didn't even steal 'em.

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