When identity is torn away
One of the prisoners I am writing, his name is Sean, an Irish citizen, who grew up when the violence was at its height. His life has been rough, his father who was in the IRA was killed in a terrorist attack and he lost other friends to this civil war in his part of Ireland. Because of his background, to say he has anger issues is an understatement and one of the reasons he is in Jail. Though there are other reasons as well. He will soon be getting out of prison, and forced back to his home country, because of his involvement with the IRA when very young. Which causes him some anxiety because he has enemies back home. Though it has been over 30 years since he came to the United States.
When I first started writing to him, he was seeking to find ways in dealing with his anger/rage issues. Being in prison because of the overall population, there is a lot to make one angry and he was smart enough to know that it would only take him further on down the descending spiral he has been traveling for years; albeit, unknowingly. Being sent to prison was a knock on his head and it woke him up. It has been rough, but he has made a lot of progress in dealing with his impulse control when it comes to anger.
When he first starting writing me, he confessed that what he wanted was some help in dealing with this monkey on his back (anger). I think most people are well acquainted with anger, a large group has to deal with it on a daily basis, and a smaller group knows that it could lead to inheriting the whirlwind if they don’t do something about it. I, like Sean, belong in the latter group. I was concerned for him because of the living conditions in prison. Here is a man, who admits why he is in prison, knows he deserves to be there, yet has to come to enough self-knowledge to know that unless he finds a better way, he will have a bad end, or spend many more years in prison if he gives vent to his rage.
I was honest about my own struggles and concern about him and would do what I could (though not much) to help him. He admitted that he is a fighter, good at it, but now sees that it is a waste of time. He sees how his fellow inmates who don’t try to control their anger only make their lives worse and even get years added on to their sentence if they harm, or sad to say, kill, another inmate.
He was serious about his spiritual life, knowing that it is a lifeline for him and that his faith would help him to navigate his own inner landscape. A place he was not really aware of before he landed in prison.
In his second letter to me, he told me that he was trying to pray for his ‘enemies’ who are there in prison with him and that it helped. Yet he still had falls and that scared him. So we talked about being in touch with his moods, knowing when to pull back if need be and to not allow others to draw him in. Here is something I wrote in the second letter I sent him:
“You are dealing well with your anger, and yes, praying for you enemies is a deeply healing prayer, for it is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, forgiveness is hard, but as you are doing, you seek through self-knowledge to understand others who have wronged you. We all have a past, we all need mercy and forgiveness…..we receive mercy and then pass it on to others, if not face to face, then through prayer. Be patient, one day at a time, and allow the Lord to heal you according to his own timetable”.
So over the two and half years, I have been writing him I have seen progress, suffering, struggle, failure and yes a growing trust in God. While at the same time his life has not gotten easier. He is just not controlled by his anger anymore, it no longer grabs him by his neck and shakes him senseless. He is having serious health issues and now worried about getting his meds when he goes back to Ireland. He is seeing an Irish social worker who will most likely be able to help him in that regard. He is having another problem, he does not have a birth-certificate. Which has led him to learn something about himself that he did not know before….which has him reeling. His identity has been torn away from him, for what he thought for 50 some years about himself, is now seen as a lie.
He found out that he is adopted. So now he thinks that he was simply dumped somewhere by a mother who did not want him. His true father wanted nothing to do with his real mom, so she was left bereft and alone. He wrote me: “I have no idea who I am, my whole life has been a lie”. So, yes, another milestone for him to face, but I believe he will. Below is my response, which I know was not sufficient in any way to alleviate his suffering.
“Well, you have had quite a journey haven’t you last the few weeks? Learning about one’s past can be a shock, especially the news that you became privy to. I can see your confusion over ‘who you are’, yet, you are still Sean. I have no doubt that your mother loved you, but in 1965, in Ireland, the pressure must have been too great for her to withstand. Usually, mothers mourn their children when they had to give them up for adoption. It was actually the fault of your father, though I would imagine that the situation was trying for both of them. Your father as he aged may have come to the realization of what he did and came to regret it as well. The situation of you ‘being given away’ says nothing about you, you are yourself, a man who is seeking God, trying to grow as a human being and wanting to move on in life after you are released from prison’.
Your true identity is in God, you are a child of God, loved in an infinite manner; cherished. Everything else is secondary. Your adopted parents are your real mom and dad, they raised you, probably went through a great deal to see that you were taken care of. Like you said, your step-mom sent you to America because she thought it would be better for you….I am sure it was a sacrifice for her….because you were worth it. Keep your perspective grounded, this will only be a big problem if you let it. After saying that, I know it will be a struggle for you, but be rooted in your faith and in your relationship with Christ. Pray for your biological parents and forgive them…..even if it may be difficult for you”.
I would say he is being pounded, but that is the nature of our lives in this world. He is facing this without seeking to blame anyone, or really to allow himself to become a victim. Our faith in God’s love for us precludes that over the long haul. My roots of anger go way back. Things happen, a very young child sees it one way, and those who brought about the experience see it in another. Yet the seed is there and needs to be dealt with. I do believe that God uses all of us to work for the kingdom by our gifts, but truly reaches us through our weaknesses, or as St. Paul would say: “The thorn in his side”.
Our past does have a hold on us, but it does not define us. Who is Sean, who am I, who are you, dear reader? What we truly believe will lead us to one conclusion or another. Do we believe what others tell us about ourselves? People who are wounded and filled with their anger and pain, or do we believe what Christ Jesus tells us and shows us by his life. Or any religious tradition for that manner.
One morning I was in between waking and sleeping and had a quick dream (?) where I was in a beautiful garden, surrounded by very beautiful flowers, mostly white. Some of the plants were flourishing, others struggling, yet all alive. So I asked the Lord or prayed to the Lord. “Lord, each and every flower is known by you and loved, and I believe you will bring true life to all”. For each human being is known truly only by God, and who am I to limit his mercy, love, and compassion toward each human being.
I do know that when younger if I would have let my anger consume me, I would not be here now. Though even if I was a 69-year-old man who was filled with fear, anger, and hatred, there would still be hope, for God knows me to my deepest depth, he sees what is hidden from myself and would call me in love and hope to trust.
We can judge actions, but not people. We can be overwhelmed and do things that are truly horrible and evil. Sean did some horrible things, he is now sorry for it and is slowly growing in his trust in God’s love for him and learning where his true identity is.
I am amazed at the courage of people, and the struggle many go through to grow in their humanity. It is an honor to know this man, and please pray for him and all men and women prisoners and those who work in prison. I have talked with those who work in the system and they tell me of their own struggles and how their faith keeps them from actually becoming like the worst of those they have to take care of. Prayer, grace and taking responsibility for themselves keeps them on the straight path.