Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of people, close to home and from afar, comment that they’ve appreciated my reflections and stories that emerge out of Monday mornings spent at the jail. I’ve obviously appreciated the affirmation, even as I sometimes privately wonder if I’m dancing a little too close to the line of voyeuristically exploiting the pain of hard stories to make a bit of theological hay. In my more optimistic moments, I believe these stories need to be told to bring a bit of humanity into a place where stereotypes and casual dismissiveness abound, to shine a light on the glimmers of hope, to bear witness to the sadness, etc. At other times, I wonder if I’m doing little more than wordily rubbernecking as I pass the scene of a car wreck.
I’ve been thinking about one particular question I was recently asked about these posts from the jail. It was a simple one: “Why? Why do you naturally gravitate toward these stories? Why do they seem to bring something different out of you than other kinds of writing?” I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m not sure I have a great answer yet. But a first stab at it would go something like this.
I think the stories, the people, and the general stark realities of the jail are a kind of extreme microcosm of the human condition. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in jail is that the lines that we like to draw between “criminals” and “law-abiding citizens” is not nearly as clean as we like to imagine. The people I encounter each week at the jail are not some unique category of humanity that needs to be hidden from contact with “normal” people (except in extreme circumstances). They are people. People who have done bad things, certainly. Sometimes very bad things. But people all the same.
Every human being who makes their way in the world exists at the intersection of personal responsibility and an external world that impinges upon us in countless ways. We are in control and we are out of control. We choose and there are choices made for us. We act and we are acted upon. But of course, not all of our actions are constrained to the same degree or by the same factors.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail struggles with addictions of some sort. And what is addiction but a way of coping with pain? The pain of absent or abusive parents, dysfunctional social structures, the pain of failure and despair, the pain of ignorance, of not knowing how to make better choices, of never having anyone model what a well-lived life might look like. Most of us are better at hiding the ways in which we self-medicate to dull the pain of existence than those in jail are. We often have access to social and relational safety nets that they don’t. Our addictions come in more socially approved forms. But we all have our ways of escaping from difficulties that seem like more than we can bear.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail struggles with impulse control and anger, at least on some level. They have burned bridges that they desperately wish they could cross back over. They want to do better, but they keep lashing out. Those of us on the outside have perhaps learned better skills for keeping our impulses and urges and volatile emotions under wraps or expressing them in less obviously destructive ways, but we do not inhabit some separate category of human experience where these things are foreign to us.
Many people I’ve met in jail have experienced debilitating racism for their entire lives. They have grown up in communities where indigenous people have been ridiculed, misunderstood, mistreated, and neglected. They have inherited the pain of a long history of colonialism that has spun out into all kinds of chaos and addiction in family structures and misguided coping mechanisms. I think that this is something that is impossible to fully understand from the outside looking in.
Nearly everyone I’ve met in jail has wandered down dangerous and destructive paths at least in part as a response to a hunger for love, belonging, and acceptance. I am regularly struck by how the men and women in jail so frequently go back to some childhood trauma. Those who were supposed to protect them, didn’t. Those who were supposed to teach and guide them, neglected the task (or didn’t know how to do it). Those who were supposed to give love, belittled and mistreated. Those who were supposed to provide a bedrock of safety and security provided an environment that was precarious and unreliable at best. Those who were supposed to be cherished were treated as inconvenient impediments. So many of the people I meet in jail found themselves in the wrong beds, with the wrong friends on the wrong streets, making the wrong choices, at least on some level, because they were so desperate to find somewhere where they belonged and where someone at least gave the illusion of caring about them.
The above comments aren’t true across the board, of course. There are exceptions. There are those who say, “I had a good story, good parents, etc., I just f***ed up.” I am painting with broad strokes here. But the overall trends are real, and they are both necessary and painful to bear witness to.
I guess, in short, I am drawn to the jail because it’s where the human condition is laid most starkly bare. It’s a place where the illusions and pretense that most of us hide our darker selves behind is stripped away and where the conversations get pretty real, pretty honest, and pretty unfiltered very quickly.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I” is a phrase that I tend to avoid (it just seems like a different way of saying, “There, by the grace of God, goes that poor sucker!”), but I sometimes leave the jail feeling something like this. I’m not so different from these people. I’ve received a few breaks that they haven’t. I’ve had a few more good people in my corner. I’ve had positive choices reinforced more than negative ones. But I’m regularly struck, when sitting around the circle in the jail, by how we’re a lot more similar than dissimilar. There we sit, sinners every one of us, hungry for love, for forgiveness, for grace, for mercy and longing to live lives that reflect these things better than we’ve managed so far.