Of toothpaste, and the arc of the moral universe
How a theft in Senior House altered my worldview
Sometime in June, a discovery in Senior House threw me briefly into a personal crisis. Someone had used my toothpaste.
The thief had not only squeezed the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, but had also managed to smear it all over the outside of the opening.
I finished brushing my teeth, went back to my room, fished out my Sharpie, and wrote a kind note saying that an unwelcome mixture of water and toothpaste had been observed trapped underneath the cap. The note also advised residents to use their own toothpaste, if possible.
At the end of the note, I included a sad face. (This part required some fiddling with the eccentricity of the oval face in order to make it as endearing as possible.) I left the second draft of the note by my toothpaste in my little cubby shelf in the bathroom.
I found later that week that the entire tube of toothpaste had been stolen.
In the next 48 hours, I missed several chances to buy another tube, which was good news for certain populations of streptococci, staphylococci, and lactobacilli.
The episode left a bad taste in my mouth.
I was trapped in my own living quarters among people I could not trust. I eyed them suspiciously as we walked past each other in the hallway. For the first time in my life, I kept my toothpaste in my own room. And though I was too lazy to keep the shampoo in my room as well, I did check that its position in the cubby was unchanged whenever I was about to use it.
And suddenly I felt It within me. I was going to Do Something About It.
Suddenly I knew what it was to march, what it was to burn a draft card, what it was to see the Berlin Wall fall, what it was to Occupy something. Suddenly I was one of We Few, We Happy Few — suddenly I was lifted up by the spirit of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall; the spirit of the Arab Spring, indeed, of humanity, with all its suffering and with all of its triumphs; the spirit of Flower Power and Pocahontas.
A full orchestra and a throng of French people with British accents materialized behind me and did the refrain to “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
I didn’t get any sympathy from my friends, let alone persuade any of them to enlist.
Why in the world would you keep your stuff in a common bathroom? Yeah, I don’t know anyone who does that. I have a caddy that I keep all my stuff in. It’s so convenient! Yep, I have my own fridge for the same reason.
Seeking to convey the Importance of my experience, and to sound sophisticated, I declared that it was an example of the tragedy of the commons. I mean, the prisoner’s dilemma. Oh wait, that’s not right either. Is it the free rider problem? I looked that up on Wikipedia, just to make sure. I tried to interpret the definition as broadly as possible, but I couldn’t even convince myself that my toothpaste woes were a case of the free rider problem.
I had a growing sense that the toothpaste incident, alas, was not related to the subject of a seminal treatise by any eminent philosopher or economist. Nor were there deep parallels between it and some major historical event permanently embedded in the fabric of a people.
You left your toothpaste out, and it was stolen, a friend explained. Just like the cheesecake, three quarts of ice cream, 20 bags of Sun Chips, two frozen dinners, pudding, multiple bottles of dish soap, bicycle, bathroom lamp cover, frozen pizza, hotdogs, corndogs, and meatballs that showed up when I searched “sh-summer-13 stolen” in my email.
I guess the toothpaste made some sense.
Later, while showering, nothing was coming out of my inverted container of body wash, so I figured it was again time to add more water. But then I noticed that someone else had left their container of body wash in the shower — the same kind of body wash, in fact. I picked it up. It was nearly full.
This was the moment. Character is what you do when no one’s looking, and all that. Who am I, and what do I stand for?
Well, what I stood for was something like five minutes. Five minutes just staring at the bottle, with the water streaming down, turning the shower into a steam room. Finally I made up my mind. I, Leon Lin, am a weak-willed hypocrite. I clumsily popped the cap open.
There was a gooey clear substance, which may or may not have been body wash, smeared all over the outside of the opening. I dropped the bottle.
Whatever. The arc of the moral universe is long — like, really long. Don’t even bother. The proper reaction to anything is “Meh.” “Psshhhh.” You will graduate and get a job and marry and retire and die.