[This post is part of my Truth Tuesday series on Facebook.]
On Monday, in prison pastorals and groups, I witnessed rich and varied stories:
An inmate struggling to love himself (even like himself). This motivated him to practice loving-kindness inward. He easily expresses compassion for others yet realized how little he has for himself. Now he does daily compassion prayers inward. Through tears he said, “I don’t know why it’s so hard. I don’t know why I feel so undeserving.” I told him how much he inspires me. He’s going straight to a deep wound inside and practicing wholeheartedly.
Another inmate talked about silence. How sometimes silence is best: holding back angry words. And how sometimes silence is hurtful: not standing up for someone who’s being mistreated. He’s pondering and practicing mindful speech in new ways, knowing if he doesn’t do it in prison he won’t do it on the outside.
In group, we discussed the role of women in everyone’s lives and the respectful treatment of women (of humans). The sharing was deep: old habits of treating women like objects, then shifting that view—while in prison—to see them as equals; men feeling objectified and taken advantage of while in prison; mothers and sisters instilling strength and wisdom; a transgendered inmate explaining what it felt like to be a girl inside a man’s body, and being repeatedly beaten for those feelings; another inmate talking honestly about lustful thoughts and redirecting his mind; everyone sharing how hard it is to witness the derogatory speech about women—pervasive in prison—yet also needing to keep themselves physically safe.
One of our group members is being released. He’ll be free in a few days. These are big moments. So our session ended with him standing in the middle of the circle. Each person looked him in the eyes and spoke a heartfelt well-wish for his future. It was a circle of love and compassion and vulnerability. The masculine and feminine together.
Afterward, I visited with female inmates. One described the amazing power of living life true to herself: finally knowing herself and acting from integrity in all situations. How this moment—after 9 years imprisoned—is the happiest of her life. Another woman described ways she copes with prison: removing herself from inflamed situations, focusing on her breath, and practicing patience—no need to rush. I reflected to her that she’s very wise. Her face lit up. “I am? I’ve never thought of myself as wise.”
My days in prison are packed with intense, meaningful connections. Much like my days in Haiti. In both situations, I’m outside my comfort zone, communing with people I would otherwise not see, learning powerful life lessons. It’s natural and easy to huddle in groups of like-minded people with similar backgrounds. That’s how I’ve spent most of my life. But now I understand the perspective, growth, and learning that happens when I sit in a circle with people who are “other” yet aren’t really “other.” In fact, we’re all human. We share far more than we realize. When I make that human connection, especially outside my comfort zone, my heart and mind expand, my compassion deepens, and my perspective widens.