I wrote this in January of 2019. Halfway through my time teaching The WellBeing Project concepts in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office (a.k.a. Chattanooga jail).
Every week I meet with a group of murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and other assorted criminal offenders. We sit around tables in a classroom on the fourth floor of a maximum security jail. And we talk about well-being.
For months I never bothered to find out why each of my participants were locked up. I assumed most were for drug related charges. Why I assumed that, I can’t say for sure. Naiveté probably.
Or maybe because the labels “murderer,” “rapist,” or “pedophile,” invoke images of monsters, not the individuals I talk and listen and joke with.
I admit, when I finally googled each name on my rosters, I paused. More than once I wanted to turn to someone and say, “He doesn’t really look like that,” pointing to the mug shot on my screen. But there was no one with me.
Every week my partner hears about my class. I shared some of the articles written about individuals I've told him stories about. “Does it change your opinion of them when you read this?” he asked.
“Yes and no? I don’t know?” It changed something, but I hadn’t figured out what.
My message is the same. I believe in the concepts of The WellBeing Project. I believe they're a fundamental understanding of how to experience human flourishing.
But what has changed might be my energy and emphasis. I have sought to communicate how similar we all are as humans, and how I care about them as individuals. My care and concern has been a part of my weekly message, whether I intended it that way or not. Now though, I sense the irrelevance of my own care for them. Confronted with the truth about some of their past actions, I pause.
I don’t care about them that much. I mean, not in the grand scheme of things.
There is one participant that I have had a particularly good connection with. I see him as a friend and have imagined we would be when he gets released one day. He’s the only one who had told me why he was incarcerated. But it turns out he lied. The story he told me had a few details changed. Maybe he thought I couldn't handle the whole truth.
I understand clearer now that I am not there to be their friend or pal or sister or lecturer.
Me accepting them doesn’t begin to make up for how the rest of society sees them. That isn’t the goal: to find a caring soul in me. I am there to share what I have; insight on the human experience, and support in caring for themselves. As individuals they're not very different from anyone else I spend time mentoring.
Whether I accept or reject someone else because of their behavior does not change the behavior. It doesn’t change history. Each one of us must live with our own historical facts. The principles of well-being allow us to deal with the facts, and move forward without heavy secrets or the murky areas we prefer not to acknowledge.
Healthy people acknowledge their potential for great evil. You cannot be capable of great good, without the capacity for evil too. To be fully alive is to be full of potential. You can’t have mountains without valleys.
But healthy people understand their ability and responsibility to choose their actions. The healthier you are, the more you can empathize with the ill.
Most of us have secrets and shame. Perhaps not the type that would get us locked up, but the milder kind can be just as problematic. What we keep to ourselves is what locks us up from the lives we could have. It keeps us judging others in unconscious self-defense. It keeps us playing small and wasting opportunities. It keeps us clinging to average existence, booked solid with busywork. It keeps us from untangling our relationships and experiencing intimacy.
The truth is, I enjoy my class each week. Maybe that's why I paused when reading the criminal records of my participants. “What does it mean about me, if I enjoy our time together?” might have been the question I was vaguely asking myself. But now I know it means exactly what it should.
I don’t like living in a world where we make superficial changes and slap ourselves on the back. I don’t like living in a world where cancerous secrets are kept, and shame sublimates to rage at one another. I am not interested in appearances, I want what is real.
The men in my class haven't confessed the specifics of their crimes to me. They didn’t have to. We’re in a maximum security detention center, we all know shit's gone down. Their pasts are exposed for anyone with access to google. But their exposure brings options for inner freedom that many of my pleasant neighbors on the outside don’t yet have.