Sunday, August 05, 2012

Contradiction vs Complexity

I bet there are some people who think I contradict myself, advocating for prisoners' rights while at the same time demanding we punish criminals.  But those are the people who probably hold an either/or mentality, the all or nothing assumption that solutions are black and white as opposed to various shades of gray, the colors of common ground.  I've never been good at seeing the world like this.  I like colors, in particular, green, not the hue of dollar bills but the splendid variety of leaves and weeds and grasses.  There is a connection here, believe it or not: while I believe violent criminals must be behind bars, I also believe they are entitled to see more of the sky and, if possible, pick some wild flowers.  Go ahead and laugh--it does sound funny. 

In working with violent criminals, I've discovered some amazing contradictions that fly in the ignorance of assumption.  First, by necessity, these folks are creative, many artistic and a good many more eager to change.  Most of them really are trying to make a better life for themselves, to make amends and fix their broken families.  And yet, they are criminals.  They are broken human beings in every sense.  Their perceptions are so skewed, their reasoning so illogical, their crimes so abhorrent, most of us want to condemn them to a life in prison even when the law does not dictate such a sentence.  We get cynical, perhaps justifiably because many prisoners will return to prison.  They just cannot break their thought and behavioral patterns because they don't have the support to do so once they leave prison or because they don't have the mental capacity or will.

I wish I could relay some of the bizarre things I've heard from these men.  Some of them are kind of nuts.  Sometimes the insanity really is mental illness, not just confused craziness.  Sometimes it's the result of growing up in a violent environment.  Sometimes it's that they have had to lie too many times just to survive.  Sometimes they need to exhibit power because they have spent most of their lives feeling powerless.  Sometimes there's a break between the spirit, heart and mind.  Sometimes it's everything.  They are really sick people whom our society has bred but who need to be held responsible for their actions in order for society to survive.  Yet, a good part of our society expects criminals to take all the responsibility, which creates more criminals.  It's a catch-22.

As a survivor of a violent sex crime, I empathize with victims and their families. I know what rage, fear and despair feel like.  I know what PTSD feels like.  I know what it feels like to lock away my emotions and hide from the world, essentially putting myself in prison where the real criminal belongs.  And as a survivor, I have also learned to forgive and even understand, the keys to my healing.  I have been blessed by angels, spiritual and human, who have helped me through this process and have empowered me to work with people similar to the man who raped and beat me.

As a teacher, I have taken on a daunting task that has required I learn more about manipulative men, the kind of men who get information from you, just a little at a time, until they get enough to suck you into their illness.  Fortunately, in a jail, I've got a lot of backup.  The officers and staff are supportive, experienced and understanding.  They are dedicated, fair people who are willing to come to the aid of someone like me, someone who doesn't always catch subtleties.  I did not have this advantage outside of the jail setting and was thus a victim in a couple of different ways during a few periods throughout my life.

Part of the reason I was easy prey is related to my personality.  I'm generally honest, friendly, like to give people the benefit of the doubt and have always kind of lived on the fringe of society.  By this, I mean my view of the world is very different from the mainstream.  I often live in my head and imagination, which is what writers and artists do.  The stereotype of the misunderstood artist is based in a version of reality.

I also believe that people are inherently good but that as a species we are unevolved.  Our survival instinct pushes us towards fighting for power over others and over our environment.  We feel threatened by what we don't understand.  Traditionally, women are viewed as assets because we are the ones who can carry on the family genes, and the prettier we are, the more coveted we are.  It's a primeval mentality we have not outgrown as a species, and it is one that is in conflict with our fast growing population and too-quickly developing society.  In short, we are at odds with ourselves.

Because I understand this, I am capable of possessing tremendous compassion and unconditional love for these prisoners.  I've been known to say outright, "I love my students."  At least one student said, "And your students love you, too."  In spite of my lecture on "agape," I took this man's comments to mean they all understood where I was coming from, a mistake I consistently make with people.  Because I believe in human potential, I tend to think they know more than they do, an illogical (and probably stupid) assumption considering a lot of these men have less than a high school education in addition to the mentalities of middle schoolers.  But I value other kinds of education, the kind of skills that I don't have but they do:  mechanics, construction, carpentry, etc.  I value manual labor and the people who do it.  I value them.

And so, my life's experiences have taught me there are more than even two sides to every story.  We need to treat everyone as respectfully and lovingly as possible while staying safe.  We need to expand our perceptions and reconsider our assumptions.  This kind of complex thinking allows me to hold complex beliefs, which I don't see as contradictory, but deliciously human. 

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