I sometimes sit here, observing the life I have, and pondering what exactly brought me here. I have a generally good life. A generally happy life. A very rewarding and fulfilling life. It is a life I never thought in a million years I would one day live.
Yet here I am.
I have an incredible career as a writer and blogger. I have an incredible child and a gratifying relationship with him. And, I have an incredible circle of family and friends.
When times are good, it’s so easy to list all the brave and bold and smart things I did to get where I am. It surely was my work ethic, the time I put into it all, the proficiency I developed for my career, the time and effort I put into involved fatherhood, the willingness I had to push through – no matter how difficult things got… This is all surely what brought me here.
And it’s all true. But there were other things, too.
There were the darker and harder and much more important moments of my life. They were the moments when something I did caused me, or other people I care about, grief and difficulty. And as I look back at those moments, I can’t help but think that perhaps they actually did more to bring me the life I live than anything else. I can’t help but believe they deserve a lot more credit than I have ever given them.
These are the three biggest mistakes of my entire life, and how they changed (and continue to change) everything.
1. I stole money from a child with cancer.
My stomach clenched as I turned the box of money upside down and shook its heavy contents onto my bed. I was 18 years old, and even as I delightfully looked at my booty, I couldn’t figure out why I had done it.
A hundred and fifty dollars. Give or take.
An hour before I had finished bowling with my brother and our usual posse. We all said goodbye to one another, and I was last in line to pay for our games. I handed my shoes to the attendant and as he undid the laces and sprayed the insides, I took special note of the box of money sitting on the countertop.
We all were kleptomaniacs. We enjoyed stealing things and then showing off what we stole. We never swiped anything but the ridiculous: menus, water carafes, cartoon neckties, food trays, other random crap. I don’t know why we thought it was so funny or why we got a rush from it. And I don’t know why, since those were the types of things we’d always taken, I looked at that money and thought about taking it.
A home-printed picture of a hairless child and the name of his cancer diagnosis somehow escaped my surveyance of the risk and reward. I asked the attendant a question I knew he’d have to go find a manager to answer, and as soon as he was gone, I took the box of money, and I ran.
Nothing has haunted me as much in my life as that one careless, selfish, and downright atrocious act. The child’s picture still surfaces in my mind, sometimes daily. Why did I take the money? How did I rationalize it? Why did I keep it? Was I really that bad of a person?
And the impossible question: how do I ever make it right?
Over the years, I have righted every other past stealing wrong that I could. I sent stores and restaurants checks for what I had stolen. I handed my dad a lump some of all the money I ever snuck out of his wallet. I finally made it all right with everyone…
Except that child with cancer.
Because I can’t.
I have no way to know who he was. What his name was. If he lived, or if he died. I have no way to know just how that money could have affected him and his treatment or lack thereof. There is no way to ever make that mistake right. Ever.
And believe me, I have tried. With it always in the forefront of my thoughts, I have donated a lot of money over the years to cancer research organizations and individuals fighting cancer as well. I’ve attempted to assuage my guilt by seeking out parents of sick children and giving them what I took from those other desperate parents so many years ago.
And no matter what I do, or how much I give, nothing does the job because… none of them are that kid. None of them are that kid’s parents.
My stomach clenches today as much as it did the day I sat and poured the money out on my bed as the same thought enters my mind.
What if that kid died?
And what if that money could have made the difference?
In a fight for cancer, $150 maybe seems negligible to the final outcome, but you never know.
You just never know.
What I do know is that that one big mistake changed my life forever. For the better.
I have never stolen so much as a dime or a toothpick since that day. Had I never made such a huge unfixable mistake, I can only guess where my little stealing games would have taken me and how it would have changed the way I looked at life and worked through life.
Certainly I would have ever-escalated in my belief that stealing was okay and not all that consequential. I would have pushed my limits further and further with it until something permanent and irreversible happened. I would have built every business I’ve built on a foundation of greed and poor ethics. And, I probably would have always believed that true financial security was never more than one dishonest act away.
That was the path I was on.
Instead, I have moved forward in my life believing that stealing and dishonesty is wrong, even in small doses. I have built every business I’ve built on a foundation of honesty and solid trusting-relationships with others. I have done a lot of good in this world. I have walked and run for the sick. I have raised money and donated money and helped manage money for sick children. I have raised money to pay for children’s entire funerals. And now with my blog, I am able to occasionally help some children in ways that I never could before. Even now I am working to setup a non-profit organization for the sole-purpose of such efforts.
This is the path I am on.
It’s a happier path. A better path. A good path.
And, it’s all because I made a very big mistake. One which I will always regret. One for which I’ll always be thankful.