CYC-Online 142 DECEMBER 2010
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What I Learned from the Threat of Punishment

Once, when I was young, I started a fire. It was an accident, really. Me and my friends were playing with matches, lit a small “campfire” in an empty field and the wind came up and, well, it got out of control. As soon as we saw what was happening we ran like crazy back to our homes and then, when the alarms started sounding (someone had seen the fire in the field and called the fire station) we pretended to be surprised and excited.

Later, when we were confronted about it, we lied. After all, who knew what punishment might fall on us if we were honest. And, besides, in the end it only burned off a few square blocks of unused land, so what was the big deal? “And” we said, laughingly to ourselves later when no one could hear us, “good practice for the volunteer fire department.”

When I was a young teenager, me and some other friends set another fire – this time it was intentional. It was just an abandoned shed in the local baseball field. We hid in the bushes and waited for the fire department to come. When they did, we slipped out of the bush to join the crowd and watch the results of our handiwork. It was exciting. Maybe we were too excited because somehow the fire chief focused on us.

When we were confronted, we lied. After all, by this time I was a teenager and knew what punishment would fall on me if I confessed. When you are threatened with punishment enough, you learn about “the possibilities”. People may have thought I was not listening when they threatened me, but I was!

Later, when I was a little older I had a paper route, delivering morning papers on my bicycle to houses a fair distance from town. Some days when I was feeling lazy, I would “forget” to deliver the paper to some of the houses farthest away. When the people phoned up to ask where their paper was, I lied. I would say things like “I put it in your box. Maybe somebody stole it.”

I knew that if I told the truth, I might lose the paper route (and I wanted the money) and, more important, I knew what kind of trouble I would get in with my dad if he ever found out I was being lazy and dishonest. And trust me; you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of him on a bad day. Deflection, I learned, was often effective – and sometimes even worked with Dad. People always had others about whom they were suspicious. I slowly learned to play with that – “Who do you think wanted to annoy you, Sir?” “Who would want to take their paper, Dad?”

Somewhere along the way, I also learned how to cheat at school. Copying other kid's answers, skipping out and writing false notes, or making up stories about what happened to my homework, and why I didn’t get it done. When I was questioned about any of these, I would lie, of course. And I would make up stories: bad headaches, sick relatives or the always successful, – my parents had another big fight and we (my brothers and I) spent all night awake, hiding in my brother’s room, listening to them.

It was around about then that I learned that you could actually “confess to doing wrong” if you could tell a good enough lie about why you did it. Like the story about my parents. Heck, no local teacher wanted to follow up on that one so they pretended sympathy and let me off easy. Later I learned that Tom Robbins had said it best, in Villa Incognito, “all human beings can be deceived but they can’t all be deceived in the same way”. Refinements, I learned, were important to the success avoidance of punishment.

As I got a little older I learned the skills of “shoplifting” from some of my close friends. “What the heck,” we thought, “The stores have plenty of stuff, and they have insurance, and they cheat all the time anyway.” Sometimes we would get caught, of course. And when we did, we lied. We got pretty good at it – the lying and the shoplifting. So many skills were developing, and most of them developed simply to avoid the punishment that was threatened.

As I got older still and, I thought, “more sophisticated” I learned to steal from folks who had more than we did – breaking in to summer cottages or temporarily vacated homes. Sometimes the police would come to investigate me and my friends. They had their suspicions, but no proof. My friends and I thought that they were just investigating us because we were some of the poorer folks in town. After all, everyone knows the police would pick on the poor folks. Having a strong rational (read defensiveness) helped, I found, to feed the fires of injustice. And when accused of discrimination, most human beings, back down. A fine tactic for a delinquent youth back then.

When we were confronted, we would lie really hard, and really well. We may still have been underage, but we had heard the stories about reform schools for delinquents and we didn’t want any part of that, even though many of our heroes were criminals who were, or had been, in jail. Somewhere along the line, I stopped it all – the lying, the stealing, the abuse of others. Why is not important right now.

But as I reflect back on this little aspect of my personal history, I find I am reflecting a lot on what John Stein has said about punishment and the threat of punishment (if you don’t know John's writing you can look some of it up on cyc-net (e.g., Especially, John talks some about what young people learn from punishment or the threat of it.

As I reflect back I realize that I learned a lot from the threat of punishment.

It just wasn’t what people wanted me to learn.


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