On February 12, The Boston Herald reported that Shawn Michael Wilde, a 25-year-old man form Bridgewater, MA, was charged with stealing a $5,000 gold necklace from his 98-year-old grandmother—as she laid in her coffin before her funeral. He reportedly showed up at the funeral home two hours before her service was supposed to start, and asked to be alone with her to pray. His pretrial was scheduled for March after he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
As might be expected, the response among the article’s readers expressed outrage and dismay. One reader called it “disgusting,” and felt that “the family should ostracize him for this stunt.” Another reader called him a “piece of utter garbage,” and still another said that Wilde “should be strapped in an open coffin next to his grandmother for the duration of the wake…in shame.” Even the Herald itself editorialized the act by calling the crime “cold-hearted.”
This is how we typically perceive an act of stealing: that it’s something shameful, that it’s something that earns the scorn and rebuke of others. Those who steal from others should be punished in the harshest and most thorough way possible—especially when they steal from their deceased grandmother. According to this perspective, the only way for us to live in a balanced world is when the offender is made to feel as bad as possible about what he (or she) did. This is how we achieve justice in our mind.
Several thousand years ago, a sage named Patanjali laid out a system that is known as the Eightfold Path, part of a larger text known as the Yoga Sutras. This is a comprehensive approach to help a person to go from a state of personal suffering and turmoil to a state of enlightenment and peace. While the system includes tools like physical postures and meditation as two of the eight steps, it starts off with the first step of showing us how to abstain from certain behaviors. This includes abstaining from violence, dishonesty, and yes, stealing. But instead of saying that these behaviors are “disgusting” or that they make us a “piece of utter garbage,” Patanjali teaches us that behaving this way perpetuates our suffering. They make us feel as bad as the person who suggests that Wilde should be strapped in an open coffin for the duration of his grandmother’s wake.
With this in mind, Patanjali’s teachings show us that stealing isn’t significant because it makes us a bad person, it’s significant because taking from others is a reflection of how much we are suffering in our life. When we see something that isn’t ours and we manipulate the situation to acquire it, we are allowing our ego’s need for control to dictate our actions. And when we live our life by attempting to gratify our ego (“I have to have that no matter who it hurts”), we are depending on the world beyond ourselves to make us happy. Supreme joy and love, Patanjali teaches, only comes from within, so those who steal will only be delaying this loving feeling. Presumably, if Wilde is able to commit to such an act, he feels extensive turmoil and will have to contend with that turmoil until he consciously resolves to no longer live this way.
When considered in relation to Patanjali’s philosophy, is taking a gold necklace the only type of stealing that we can perpetrate? Definitely not. We can attempt to gratify our ego by taking many different things. If we take office supplies from our employer (“they’ll never know the difference”), we’re allowing our ego to tell us we will be happy when we save money. When we spend an entire conversation with someone talking about ourselves or our issues without ever asking them how they are (“I’m more interesting than them anyway”), we’re allowing our ego to tell us we are only happy when we control the dialogue. Even employees at large corporations who sell genetically modified food are stealing (“we’ll sell whatever earns us profits regardless of how it affects people’s health”), for their egos tell them that they will be gratified when they make the most amount of money possible.
The practice of non-stealing, known as asteya, teaches us to refrain from taking that which isn’t ours. But instead of doing so because it’s a more righteous and justified action, we do it because we reject the necessity of more suffering. We no longer take office supplies, we look at conversations with others as a way to serve the other person rather than gratify our sense of self-importance, and we refrain from buying foods that rob ours and other people’s health. We seek greater balance for ourselves and others not because it’s the right thing to do—but because it’s the most beneficial and natural thing to do.
Wilde pleaded not guilty to the act of thievery. Between now and March 11 when his pretrial is scheduled to take place, he may be thinking of ways to avoid incarceration, what he should and shouldn’t say to support his innocence, or how to protect himself from all of the people crying out for justice. But while all of these thought processes may help him to succeed in the eyes of the law, none of them will help him ultimately resolve whatever feelings compelled him to take the necklace in the first place.
For it is only when he rejects personal suffering to live in love that he will ever truly be free.
Have questions for me? Comments? Please feel free to leave them below.