Monday, November 21, 2011

What It's Like To Be Robbed

The burglars broke into our house through a back window, a classically vulnerable location where it was dark, not visible by neighbors or people passing by, and adjacent to an area of vacant land where they could make their escape.

I had left the sliding windows in one of the bedrooms open slightly for ventilation and placed rods in the tracks so the windows couldn't be opened further, or so I thought.  The thieves tried one window, gave up, and then must have reached in and used a stick or something to dislodge the rod in the other window.  We know the point of entry because of the damaged screens and the muddy footprints that originated there and then tracked through the rest of the house on our brand new carpet.

This happened while we were 6500 miles away in Bhutan, a very peaceful country where the influence of Buddhism makes this kind of crime rare.  Actually it is also rare in our small Hawaiian community relative to other parts of the U.S., but it still does happen and seems to be on an uptick with the economic downturn. We learned of the break-in while we were on our trip in emails from our neighbors and from our handyman who checks our house each week while we are gone.  We have asked them NOT to contact us about major problems while we travel unless there is something we can actually do about the situation -- our philosophy is why ruin a trip when it won't accomplish anything?

In this case, though, we were able to give them instructions that turned out to be crucial.  For example, we asked them to look for our spare car keys and discovered that the thieves had taken them, possibly planning to return to steal one or both cars.  Our neighbors were able to secure the garage by parking one of their own cars in front of the door to prevent this until we returned and had the ignition locks changed.

Our attitude toward home security has always been pretty casual because we don't have a lot of expensive art, jewelery, or electronics.  Investing in an alarm system or a safe seemed hardly worth it, given the value of our potential losses.

Now we realize that our loss was far greater than we imagined -- not in monetary terms, but in the psychological impact the break-in has had on us.  The emotions we have felt have been a complex mixture of fear, anger, violation, vulnerability, contamination, loss of control, and sadness.  The sadness and anger arise from our realization that many of the items taken were more valuable to us than we thought because of their intimate sentimental meaningfulness.  For example, most of my wife's stolen jewelry was collected during our travels over the past 40+ years and although it wasn't terribly expensive, each piece was associated with a particular memory and cannot be replaced.  Our anger in this case arises partly from a sense of unfairness: the thieves got very little while we lost a great deal.

The feelings of violation and contamination were particularly strong at first, when the muddy footprints and jumbled contents of closets on the floor were vivid signs that an intruder had walked through every room and had pawed through every drawer.  Judging from the large size of the footprints, one of the burglars was male. But there were also indications that one was female -- ten pairs of my wife's shoes were gone, carefully selected from many other pairs, and some of her favorite purses and scarves.  [Male readers should consult a woman to gain an appreciation for the depth of response my wife had to this.] 

Vulnerability and loss of control are very uncomfortable feelings, and throughout our lives we go to great mental and behavioral lengths to avoid them, even when the control and security we think we have achieved is illusory. In my case this has meant spending a great deal of effort in closing the barn door after the horse has left. I modified the windows throughout the house to prevent future thieves from duplicating the successful break-in.  I installed motion activated lights to eliminate the dark areas where burglars could work undetected.  And at least for a while we have been more careful to lock doors and windows even when we leave for a short while.  We've also tried to convince ourselves that this was just a crime of opportunity and that we really don't present a juicy target to desperadoes.  Illusion or not, doing these things feels very positive.

There is some good that has come out of this.  I realize what wonderful neighbors and friends we have and how much they are willing to do on our behalf.  They provide a very comforting balance to the despicable behavior of the burglars.

I also have learned a worthwhile lesson about attachment to possessions --namely that although I can pride myself on not being beguiled by their monetary value, I have unwittingly invested a great deal of emotional capital in them. But the wonderful experiences that generated their sentimental value cannot be stolen and thieves can never truly cash in on their loot. The experiences, not the objects, make us rich.  If  I can just convince myself of the truth of this pearl of wisdom, I might even be able to feel a degree of compassion for the burglars -- the experiences they have violating other people can never bring them any real benefit.


SimoneStan said...

We are so sorry for your ordeal. I know that saying the items they took are just "things" is not enough to overcome those many emotions generated from being robbed. I was mugged many years ago - purse taken, nose broken - and remember the months of fearfulness that came afterwards.

Richard Sherman said...

Adding violence to this kind of event takes it to a higher level of violation. Instead of the impersonal attack we experienced from a distance, being mugged is traumatically intimate. If you want a disturbing yet practical analysis of this, see Sam Harris' blog on violence,


Sandi Woy-Hazleton said...

I hope another notice of how sorry your friends are that you suffered this violation will start, with time, to ease your minds and allow you to focus on the positive as you have done in your wonderful blog. It is certainly understandable how we become attached to "things" but the trauma of realizing that someone took them is hard to explain. I had my jewelry "box" taken in Peru, there wasn't anything really valuable monetarily, but meaningful and what was worse, it had to have been someone in the place where I was boarding.

Anonymous said...

“The experiences, not the objects, make us rich.” – I agree with you on this one! Burglars may have taken some of your possessions, but they are none the wiser. I would suggest installing cameras and an alarm system, though you have kindhearted neighbors looking out for you. Or, even if you think there is nothing too valuable burglars would get from your house. Installing these alarm systems would be for your own protection while you’re away or inside your house.

Guy Cheadle

Salvatore Nibert said...

I know I'm a bit late to this discussion, but I feel sorry for what happened to you. The trauma that you'd been through is be hard to describe. Anyhow, I must agree with Guy; it would be best for you to install a home security system. In that way, you can be so sure that those special memories that your valuables have could not be taken away again.


Mr. Nibert

Lonnie Sallas said...

Most of the time, it’s the psychological part of a robbery that disturbs most people and make them suspicious of people around them. But it’s good that you are surrounded by concerned neighbors and that they were quick to think of ways to prevent further mischief from happening. Hopefully, getting a security system will give you back that feeling of security, and then some.