Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thou shalt not steal

I remember a discussion I had with some of my 5th grade students as a teacher. They were reading A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. The story takes place in a twelfth-century Korean village. The main character is Tree-ear, an orphan boy, living under a bridge with a crippled old man, Crane-man. Despite their extremely humbling circumstances, Crane-man proves to be a very loving and wise guardian to Tree-ear. Crane-man is not able to work or provide much for the orphan boy. However he teaches Tree-ear to survive by "foraging in the woods and rubbish heaps, and gathering fallen grain heads in the autumn." You and I would imagine these methods of finding food the lowest a human could stoop. The author suggests otherwise. Even lower than looking through the waste and discarded things of others, is stealing or begging. Searching the woods and sorting through trash is humble, but it is still working honorably for your meal. "Stealing and begging, Crane-man said, made a man no better than a dog. Work gives a man dignity, [and] stealing takes it away."
My students, just as you and I, immediately agreed that of course, stealing is wrong. In theory we all believe that. In theory. We understand working to save money for what we want is right. Stealing or begging is the easy way out, and it's wrong. It's taking something we didn't work for, and don't deserve. "Thou shalt not steal" is a very basic commandment we all understand and claim to have no problem with. However admitting stealing is wrong means working for our meals is the right course to take no matter how difficult, challenging, or humiliating that may be. Working for our bread is not always easy. However that is what makes the meal satisfying. Despite their challenges, Crane-man and Tree-ear were happy. They accepted help sometimes. Accepting help is ok. Forcing others to help you is not. The characters were true to their values. They never forced others to help them, and they never stopped working. They struggled, lived humbly to the extreme, and even suffered. Eventually Tree-ear grows old enough to find work, and better their situation. It is a story of hardship, perseverance, and greatness as a result of very hard, honest work.
I enjoyed this story so much because it told a story foreign to our modern practices. Today the common lesson is stealing is wrong most of the time. However if you're really hungry, or really tired, or your child is sick, it's forgiven. In fact we even teach that if your friends' children are hungry, or the man in the next town is sick, you can even steal for them. If the more fortunate are mean, stingy, and unwilling to donate or give charity, then it's our job to make them. Right? to be continued . . .

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