I always seem to learn my lessons in the most unexpected places.
This week, I was with a number of young men who are prisoners in my town. They have long sentences, locked up for crimes they committed when they were anywhere from twelve to seventeen years old. Their home lives were chaos, riddled with the violence, drugs, and sexual behavior that is the seed bed for most of our society’s woes, and the root of our country’s high rate of putting people in prison.
Much of what we might think of as “normal” just not existing in their youth, before they came here. And, many become abandoned by their families; no one comes to visit them. So, a few of us come, to listen, to just show up in their lives.
Rather than really dealing with those issues, society locks these boys up, without much regard for who they really are, the prison terms computed by a chart of numbers, devoid of any sense of compassion, or rationality.
At least we can boast that we are “tough on crime”. And, tough on souls.
We are, after all, the leading country in the world as far as locking up our population. Yes, more than Russia, more than China, and other places we think are oppressive, undemocratic countries. The prison industry is growing, and is a significant chunk of our economy, eating up more tax dollars than what we spend on schools.
The subject of gratitude came up, as we talked about the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and how that holiday came to be part of our heritage and one of our biggest holidays, full of food, family time, and, yes, expressing gratitude.
One by one, these young men spoke humbly of the things in life they were grateful for. The list was long, and ran deep. People who cared about them, support for their treatment for their sexually inappropriate behavior, their attitudes about drugs, violence, manipulation of others, degrading their own self worth, their work on getting an education, and improving their lives, and their relationships with their family.
They also spoke of being thankful for getting in contact with their heritage, and finding a place in a culture that supported their sobriety, their healthy thinking, and their hunger for healthy, balanced, and emotionally satisfying lives, lives filled with purpose and decency. They were finding their souls, moving into manhood whole and complete, their wounds healing.
As I sat there, I recalled listening to the radio on my drive over to the prison, the “news” filled with the latest political sex scandal, and the latest celebrity drug and alcohol crazed dysfunctional public spectacle. I’d come from the grocery store, where piles of cases of beer are arranged in recognition of this weekend’s big college football game, just before aisles of cheap Christmas decorations and gifts.
A billboard along the highway invited me to come gamble and drink on New Year’s Eve, and the usual gaggle of misfits stood outside of the local dive bar, smoking cigarettes and dealing a little weed and heroin.
Yet, inside this prison, these young men calmly talked about how grateful they were for their lives, their sobriety, their hard work in dealing with their pasts, and the strengths and wisdom they now had in their lives. They were strong men, preparing themselves for going back “outside”, into our crazy, addiction tempting society.
The midday boozers and smokers outside of the bar weren’t talking much about what they were grateful for, and gratitude wasn’t the focus of the talk show radio show that came on after the “news”.
And, apparently, Thanksgiving doesn’t do much for the retail stores. Gratitude and thanks and personal achievement aren’t something you can wrap up in paper, next to all the glitz and sparkle.
I listened, listened hard to those young men, realizing that I really was in class, that I was the student and they were the teachers that day. I go there to be a giver, an offerer; my role being a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a person of wisdom. Yet, now they were the mentors, the teachers, the wise men imparting their truth, and their knowledge, their experience.
Wisdom and gratitude were spoken, and I was grateful I took the time to open my heart and hear the truth tellers in my life.
–Neal Lemery 11/17/2012