A Penitent's Perspective

An essay by Anthony Lee Brown

Anthony Brown writes from Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward, Alaska

In his explanation of the purpose of monks living in contemplative seclusion, Thomas Merton, a wonderful human being, writer, and monk, wrote:

My brother, perhaps in my solitude I have become as it were an explorer for you, a searcher in realms which you are not able to visit - except perhaps in the company of your psychiatrist.

I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man's heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts... an arid, rocky, dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by spectres which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares. And in this area I have learned that one cannot truly know hope unless he has found out how like despair hope is.1

I was astonished when I read those words for the first time nearly a decade ago. Feeling a kinship difficult to describe, but possibly comparable to that shared by the hijacked, kidnapped, or shipwrecked, I saw in those words the thoughts of a man willingly wandering a landscape that had been my terror and home for many years. Although not a voluntary explorer, and certainly never a monk, nor even much of a human being, but, instead, a convicted murderer and thief trying to remain sane and understand the purpose of his existence, I knew well the place my brother spoke of-- a dark and frightening nightmare domain, spiritual and corporeal, strange and illogical, barren and violent, peopled by twisting specters of shredded human souls, and illuminated by the burning oils of their crushed spirits… the penitentiary.

Somewhat like a monk insulated from the world by monastery walls, a prisoner-penitent sequestered from life beyond the walls, fences, and razor wire of his cage may have the opportunity to develop a perspective that is both unique to their circumstance and, perhaps, otherwise unattainable. My experience has taught me that given longevity, survival, and sanity this perspective can be advantageous and of practical benefit. An example of the fruit of this perspective is my understanding of the cultivation of my character in light of my family dynamic, which in turn has helped me to change my behaviors, nurture the growth of spiritual characteristics, and encourage similar insight and change in others.

Because of my isolation, interaction with my family is intermittent and conducted long distance through infrequent letters, phone calls, or visits, and usually consists of sharing only the extraordinary events and highlights of our lives, rather than our day to day interactions and activities. Over time I have seen characteristics and behavior patterns in my parents and my siblings and their children that were unacknowledged, or maybe unrecognized in the soup of their other relationships and the struggle to earn their daily bread. These observations form the basis of my "toolbox" analogy: How each generation has passed on to the next, through the shaping of their childrens' minds and hearts, a set of tools and skills that are stored in the "toolbox" of their characters. It is this toolbox, and the suitability of the hammers, wrenches, drivers, and levers, carried within that enables them to enter the adult world to function, or not function, as successful social beings.

My grandparents' characters developed while living and raising families in an insecure world, literally ripped apart by two world wars and economic depression. Their loyalty to nationality is reflected in my parents' belief in the democratic form of government and my father's military service, but that loyalty and belief also resulted in the death of his brother fighting a war for ungrateful politicians. My grandparent's struggle for economic stability is reflected in my parents' work ethic, but that ethic also enabled the use of the "job" as an escape mechanism. The desperate strait of economic depression gave birth to my maternal grandfather's hoarding of provisions and obesity, but is also reflected in my mother's use of food for comfort. In fact, the use of intoxicants, food, and sex for comfort and confirmation has become endemic in my family; each generation having given roots to, or conveyed measures of, the illnesses and weaknesses of the previous generation. Thus, the toolbox of each successive generation contains fewer and less suitable tools.

It is not a matter of abuse nor the lack of love, but, at its most basic level, a lack of knowledge. Those who raised us loved us tremendously, but they had children and assumed the role of teachers before they had developed the tools to function successfully themselves, much less the ability to pass them on. Previous generations were raised in a culture that was ignorant of the emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual processes of childhood development and possessed a rudimentary educational system based upon a model designed to make labor accessible to industry. Their teachers, our teachers, and we as teachers, have missed, until it was too late, the fundamental connection between the social skills that are required for successful living and basic spiritual qualities, such as honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness, empathy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, courage, steadfastness, and loyalty, from which those skills are forged.

Consider that the most basic social skill, conflict resolution, is based upon empathy (putting your feet in the other person's shoes and viewing the problem from their perspective), tolerance (accepting that it is okay for others to think differently than you), and communication (to offer and receive information and ideas with an open mind). I didn't learn empathy, tolerance, and communication while moving from one divorced, overworked, and substance dependent parents' household to the other. I know, empirically, that my parents' love for me is unconditional, but at the time I left the nest I possessed few social skills, and my adoption of spiritual qualities and characteristics was superficial at best and those were based upon the words of my parents and others, but not their examples. In fact, action often differed from the word.

The tools I wield in exercising the skills I possess today consist of qualities and characteristics that have evolved with agonizing slowness over forty-tow years of life, the last two decades of which have been spent in prison. To a large degree age, with its merging of knowledge and experience, and pain, born of life experiences absent those qualities and attributes, joined by my understanding and acceptance of a founding system of principles, have finally brought recognition, understanding, and the desire to possess those attributes and incorporate them into useful and productive skills. I have also witnessed a similar process of growth and development in my parents. As the years have passed, they have grown wise, become more patient, time-giving, self-accepting, and self-assured, and, ironically, as grandparents have become much better suited for parenthood than they were while raising their own children. Without exception, each generation developed better tools as time went on, but, also without exception, it was only after their malleable children were beyond puberty.

Abdu'l-Baha, Center of the Covenant of the Baha'i Faith, said that the qualities and characteristics we develop before puberty are those we always return to. Meaning, I believe, that like clay, our characters are easily molded and shaped while we're children, but become more difficult to change and re-form as the clay dries in our adolescence. Educated as children to be honest, compassionate, and courageous we exhibit those qualities when tested by difficulties in life, because our characters will be founded upon such attributes. Likewise, if we learn to equate happiness with the absence of fear, joy with intoxication, love with sex, comfort with food, frustration with failure, violence with anger, and material success with disdain for others, those will be the attributes and behaviors most immediate to our grasp.

It would be easy to put a selfish spin on this idea, to make every wrong ever committed the fault and responsibility of the previous generation. But, unlike children, whose characters are shaped by the hands and minds that touch them during their formative years and who have no understanding of the consequences beyond familial disapproval, at some point, generally after puberty, humans do achieve a more stable form and develop an awareness that reaches beyond our own five senses. At that point, we must then become responsible for the development and, as necessary, the reshaping of our own characters. Understanding that my parents were young and possessed character flaws that were not overcome during my formative childhood serves not to make them responsible for my wrongful actions as an adult, but to show that those flaws were shared with their children, and are again reflected in the characters and behaviors of each ensuing generation. By comprehending that my addictive behaviors were passed on from my parents, I can better act to counter those behaviors. In discerning that infidelity and distrust were factors in my parents' divorce, then fidelity and trustworthiness become more than mere words, they become tangible qualities that I can nurture in my marital relationship. By understanding that I was taught to be angry in response to frustration or fear, I can learn to respond appropriately.

I have learned, wandering the pathways of my imprisoned heart, that spiritual qualities like honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, courage, compassion, empathy, mercy, fidelity, perseverance, and steadfastness have no form save in the reflection of their expression. Yet these same qualities are the very substance of the shelters that protect us, the bridges between us, and the ties that bind us together. Should these characteristics be taught to the young children, and if we can help them to combine those qualities to form practical life skills during their earliest and most formative years, then they won't have to learn in the same manner we did, and do - through pain, our own and that which we inflict upon others.

1Written to Dom Francis Decrois at the request of Pope Paul VI,
outlining his ideas for a "Message of Contemplatives To The World."

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