I woke early this morning, and unable to sleep, I started meditating and just thinking about things. As I lay in bed with my baby breathing next to me, I started thinking about other people’s babies. How every person begins so tiny, so helpless, so innocent, and can end up in so many different circumstances.
I hope you’ll forgive me for my candor on this topic, but as I lay there this morning, I realized that I do have something to say about it (even if my knowledge about it is extremely limited).
Every semester in my English class, I teach my students about the importance of knowing what they believe in. We begin the semester with a paper called “This I Believe.” If you don’t know what this is, you must learn. It’s an awesome radio broadcast where everyday people send in an essay to NPR expressing one of their beliefs. NPR then records the chosen person reading his or her essay. It’s really cool actually. So my students each write their own, but not before hearing a few samples.
I always, always show them this one. A story about a man in prison, Troy Chapman, who encounters an abandoned cat in the prison yard. Everyone takes care of it, from the guards to the prisoners. The cat was “treated like a king.” The caste system that occurs in prison disappears as each person brings milk and food. They even snip the matted fur with a pair of blunt scissors. They care for the cat, but, as Mr. Chapman says, it’s almost like the cat was caring for them.
He finishes his essay with this statement:
“For a few days a raggedy cat disrupted this code of prison culture. They’ve taken him away now, hopefully to a decent home — but it did my heart good to see the effect he had on me and the men here. He didn’t have a Ph.D., he wasn’t a criminologist or a psychologist, but by simply saying, ‘I need some help here,’ he did something important for us. He needed us — and we need to be needed. I believe we all do.” (NPR)
I’ve shared this essay every semester for the past three years of teaching, but it wasn’t until last year that I was awakened to the harsh reality of prisons, especially solitary confinement, thanks to an experience in my own family with the justice system. Suddenly, the “bad” people in prison became people to me–human beings in need of some caring. In need of being needed.
I understand the fact that most people in prison deserve to be there; some may even say they deserve the negative atmosphere and harsh environment. People can do terrible things and must pay for their crimes. This is true.
Then there is the Christian mantra of “love thy neighbor,” not to mention “love thine enemy.” Along with that, the Dalai Lama speaks almost constantly on the need for compassion. He, the man who had to escape his home country to avoid his enemies, has said that our enemies deserve our concern because karma can be even more cruel than any revenge we can conjure (“The Nature and Practice of Compassion” Podcast). I am learning more and more how important compassion is. Compassion can change lives. It can demolish depression and strengthen relationships. Compassion can even turn hearts.
I wish I had an answer for the problems with our justice system, with our prisons especially. I don’t. I just want to echo Mr. Chapman’s feelings about needing to be needed. The Dalai Lama has written books upon books about the way that compassion coupled with meditation can help heal even the most destructive emotions to create better, happier, healthier ones.
I’ll just end my little time on the soapbox with one more quote from Mr. Chapman. “There’s a lot of talk about what’s wrong with prisons in America. We need more programs; we need more psychologists or treatment of various kinds. Some even talk about making prisons more kind, but I think what we really need is a chance to practice kindness ourselves. Not receive it, but give it” (NPR).