The anxiety of a prisoner
(no longer your own)
I do believe that everyone has something to teach those around them. Often, this comes about when it is not done on a conscious level but comes about when people are just themselves. Open, honest, and not trying to impress or influence anyone. We can influence one another, but control is not possible. Even with fear which can give the illusion of control, there is always a place where rebellion and anger resides, and rightly so when a human being is treated as an abject object. So, I guess in prison, even those who know that they belong there have to deal from time to time with the control the prison system has over their lives.
One prisoner, I am writing is in for 1st-degree murder. It happened when he was very young, on drugs and did something very stupid and another human being ended up on the floor bleeding to death. So now, 25 years later he may still have another 40 years to go if he lives into his 80’s.
He is making good his time in the sense that he is seeking to deepen his commitment to do better and to have a positive influence on the lives of those around him. He is doing that. He helps many men find their way back to faith in God, or in his case, if the man is Catholic, to reconnect with his faith tradition. When I send him a package, he shares all of it with the other men in his cell block. Which I am sure makes a big difference in their lives. A little kindness goes a long way in an atmosphere that is often violent and in some cases where life is lost.
Joseph, in his last couple of letters, has shared with me about his being transferred. What happens is that no one is told until the time to pack up and leave that they are going to another facility. It came as a shock to him and he had a couple of hours to get his things together. There were men there with whom he had a friendship, so it was a difficult move for him. He has told me that as long he is in prison, he belongs to the state and they can move him wherever they seem fit to send him.
His anxiety over this move was intense and he still working on it. One thing that helps him is his deep faith in Jesus Christ as well as understanding that he is merely paying back to society the taking of a life. A life that had a family, children and a future…..taken in an instant. He knows that it does not matter that he was on drugs, for he has taken responsibility for that and it has helped him to adapt and move on.
In his new place he is settling in, yet, even with his understanding, his emotions become angry and very anxious over being moved around like a piece of furniture, of his human dignity taken away from him. He knows this will pass and that he will continue to do what he can to help others there. Actually, before he came there his caseworker wrote a very good report on him and asked that he be put in the cell block that is faith-based; that happened, so it helps.
Below is what I wrote to him about his move and how he is handling it. Anxiety is a part of most people’s lives and we all experience it as soul-crushing if it lasts too long. So it is not too difficult to understand and to feel some empathy for anyone who goes through it.
“I just talked to your sister and she says that you are in the same place. I know that level of anxiety, that you felt, or are still feeling, is (or was) intense my friend. Yet, in prayer, it not only gets you in touch with God but also allows you to take a deep breath and simply be. I have learned that each moment is unique, especially the most painful ones. They pass never to return again, hence their importance. When in turmoil, or conflict, we have to ‘choose’ how we will interact and not react to the situation. Even if there is a failure, that to can be an experience for growth in humility, so it is a win, win, situation.”
A deeply lived faith can actually root us in the chaotic reality of any situation. It does not make it easier, but it can give meaning and direction in one’s life. Knowing that we live in a realm of ‘choice’, where the smallest decisions are important, can help for one not to be overwhelmed and to become bitter and cynical. Joseph I believe is doing a good job with that. In fact, I am humbled by his faith.
We can judge actions. Murder, for example, is wrong and those who kill, need to be dealt with, just as Joseph is being dealt with. However, the worth of another human being, who is made in the image and likeness of God, can’t be judged by anyone, since we only skim the surface. To understand the life of another human being is to in the end forgive.
From time to time I have the honor of listening to men who come here to make the 5th step. To listen to their lives, their struggles and what they have to do to overcome their addictions brings to the fore the impossibility of judging them as human beings. Stealing and lying and using others, yes, that can be brought to the light for all to see, but anything deeper only God sees and understands and loves. When we know someone who commits a crime or is addicted, we can often not lose sight of their humanity or their goodness in many cases. We have trouble when we try to save them or to control them.
I understand up to a point my own weakness and how hard it is to grow in freedom. In understanding that as well as experiencing God’s mercy and love, I can extend it to all others. How that plays out may be different in each case, but as a Christian, I am not free to hate or to heap contempt on any of God’s beloved children. I believe that to judge another human being without mercy, is an actual act of blasphemy, since we are all made in the image and likeness of God.