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March 05, 2015
The Real Issue
Am I a Thief?
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Editor's note: Cyndie Swindlehurst is swamped by life this week, so it is only appropriate that we run a column that was inspired by a reader who was also overwhelmed in a particular situation. This column originally appeared on November 22, 2012. See if you have ever found yourself in a similar moral quandary.


I am having a moral crisis.

Last week I made a frantic trip to a large home improvement store to buy some supplies for a professional job I am doing. I have already eaten a bunch of money on this job, and I just want it to be over!

I found the items I needed and then realized that I also needed six drywall screws. Just six. All I could find were boxes of about a million drywall screws for $6.75. So I asked a store employee if there were any smaller packages. 

The store employee looked up and down the aisle, then reached up and took down a damaged box of drywall screws that was already open. He put the box in front of me and said with a grin, "I'm not looking!"

My better self told my frantic-in-a-hurry self to just buy a whole box. But I was at the end of my rope, so I counted out six drywall screws. Okay, nine drywall screws. Then the employee told me to put them in my pocket.

So I did!

I went to the register, paid for the other items, and left the store. I held my breath the whole time, expecting some sort of burglar alarm to go off, but I got away clean. 

Except now I feel like a thief. I knew I should have bought the whole box. 

Do you think I am a thief? What should I do?


No, I don't think you are a thief. 

A store employee gave you some screws and you accepted them. That is not a moral lapse. It is a rational response to good customer service. If I were you, I would feel lucky, not guilty.

So it's time to stop worrying about the screws. 

The intriguing question here is why, if you didn't think you should, you took the screws in the first place. 

Perhaps you felt you needed to be nice to, and therefore go along with, the employee who was being nice to you. There are all sorts of problems with that reasoning. As Red Riding Hood reminds us in Into the Woods after her rescue from the wolf, "Nice is different than good!" 

So, if you had wanted to pay for the screws, but also to acknowledge the store employee's efforts on your behalf, you might have cheerfully said, "Thank you. You know what? I think I will buy the entire box."

Perhaps you accepted the screws because you were stressed and frustrated and in a hurry. 

If accepting the screws had been an actual moral lapse, stress would have been an unfortunate reason for committing it. Understandable, in the sense that most people have made mistakes while stressed. But still not right. And if a person is so stressed that he routinely does things he regrets, he needs to adjust his life. 

So what should you do now?

Just this: the next time you think you shouldn't do something, don't do it! 

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