This is a story I’ve told my son Nicholas many times. It’s entertaining for him, but it’s also a story that really gets him thinking about right and wrong, temptation and resistance, punishment and forgiveness, what those kids who get into trouble all the time might be thinking, and many other interesting issues. It’s inspired some great discussions!
I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing some “storytelling” style posts like this, to share some of my better anecdotes from my visit to Earth. Please comment below or contact me if you would like to read more stories like this!
I was a mostly well-behaved child. I liked to learn rules and follow them. I liked to do things that made adults approve of me. Sometimes I was disobedient or obnoxious at home or in other familiar places with familiar people, but because I was very shy my behavior in public situations like school was calibrated to attract as little attention as possible. It was very rare for me to “get in trouble” in school even enough to have a teacher take me aside to speak to me, and I certainly never got sent to the principal or anything like that.
This was true also in Sunday school, which I attended at a church so large that there was a separate class for each grade, which might have as many as 50 names on the attendance sheet and 20-30 kids present on any given day. Our classrooms were much like those in a school, with a big chalkboard at the front and small bulletin boards alongside it. Each grade had a different curriculum theme, but they varied widely–some were vague, so the teachers scrambled to put together random activities to keep the kids busy and maybe sort of relate to the theme; other years had structured activities and worksheets for every week.
Fifth grade spent the entire year pondering the question, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” This was a Unitarian church, so each week we studied the perspective of a different religion or culture. One of the first ideas presented was that bad things happen to bad people who deserve them. That idea was quickly refuted by kids thinking of examples of good people who’d had bad things happen to them, and vice versa. But there was also a tangential discussion of whether people who do bad things are always bad people and whether there really is any such thing as a bad person, or we’re all just people who sometimes do bad things and sometimes do good things. Many of the kids talked about believing that they were basically good people, or at least medium people, but once in a while “something comes over me” such that a bad thing just had to be done and they were powerless to resist. When a later lesson brought up the idea of evil spirits that possess people and force them to behave badly, most of the class agreed that even if this weren’t literally true, it was a good description of what the urge to misbehave is like.
I didn’t argue aloud, but I was skeptical. I was a good girl, and badness was not tempting. Those times at home when I hit my brother or purposely spit out my toothpaste on his arm–he deserved it! When my mother told me not to eat that butter she was putting out to soften for baking, but I did eat a whole lot of it one finger-scoop at a time, and then when she asked me what happened I said, “ANTS!!! Millions of ants came!”–well, okay, that was wrong, but it wasn’t evil; I mean, butter is so good, and it was kind of funny really, and I was only 5 then and didn’t really understand about lying maybe, or at least I couldn’t remember ever, ever knowing that I was doing something bad yet choosing to do it anyway. Only a bad person would do that. And this claim that you were not choosing but were powerless to resist the urge to be bad–ridiculous! Those were just bad kids trying to dodge responsibility.
One winter’s day we were having a particularly chaotic time in Sunday school. Attendance was unusually high. One teacher was sick, so the other two were trying to manage, but they couldn’t find any glue or paste for the craft. The kids, having finished cutting up construction paper that now could not be secured into a finished project, were at loose ends and bouncing around the room. My tendency in these situations was to move to the periphery of the group, where I was less likely to be collaterally damaged by thrown objects or restless elbows, so I was wandering in the corner near one of the bulletin boards.
There was nothing on this bulletin board but thumbtacks, the type with large, round heads. At the beginning of the school year, someone had arranged the tacks to spell, “Hi!” Then, gradually, some of the tacks from the bottom of the H had been borrowed to affix drawings to the cork strip that ran along the side wall of the room. This incomplete writing began to bother me. I wished for more tacks to complete it. I looked in the nearby supply shelves for more tacks. I didn’t find any, but I did find a blue felt-tip pen.
Suddenly I was standing in front of the bulletin board again, using the blue felt-tip pen to draw circles where the missing thumbtacks should be. I was utterly surprised to see this happening. The ink sank into the cork so beautifully; the neat circles were so satisfying–
I heard a gasp behind me. I capped the pen and whirled around.
The teacher, her face slack with despair, cried, “Oh, Rebecca! You’re usually one of the good ones!”
I don’t recall that she punished me in any way. I think she just went back into the fray. But I was crushed. I stood there feeling a shame too deep for tears and a confusion too overwhelming for questions.
Nobody ever attempted to clean the bulletin board, and before spring almost all the tacks had moved so that my line of blue circles stood alone, enigmatic. But I knew why they were there. I was relieved when enough tacks were gone that my brain no longer pinged about the incomplete “Hi!” and I could relax my vigilance over the urge to make it right. Still, I was afraid that I might have “something come over me” again sometime; I might have to do a thing that–if given the chance to think about it–I knew was quite obviously wrong. And then I would have to live with the consequences.
Logically, seeing a few little blue circles now and then is not such a bad consequence. But to me, those blue circles were a reminder that I am not always able to control myself. I am not always one of the good ones.
I still think about this, 32 years later. Of course I’ve had a lot of other experiences with moral decision-making and self-control (for Vain is the Deep of Man) but I think of this one as pivotal in making me understand, just a little bit, the struggles of those people who get into trouble more than I do. I’m really quite lucky to be good at rule-following, attuned to the reactions of others, and innocent-looking when I do screw up. Now that I work in delinquency research, I’ve learned a lot about the correlation between impulsivity and crime, but that doesn’t explain why impulsivity is so much stronger a trait in some people than others–it just is. However it is that something could come over me, that something gets control of other people more often than it does me. There but for the grace of God go I! And I had to experience it to believe it.
I was inspired to write this story after reading Rachel Callahan’s story of how her usually-obedient daughter learned that it is okay not to be perfect, and that refusing to forgive herself is really more wrong than forgiving herself. Go read that now! You’ll be glad you did.