In our society, we tend to medicate what suffering we do not know how to process. Complicating this is the fact that we live increasingly isolated lives. The experience of being a member of a nation state has become synonymous with experiencing a state of alienation and we are in a collective trance about it. Many of us are crying out from that experience in desperate and disparate ways. A lot of it happens silently, in the long hours we spend in front of screens or through addiction of one kind or another. Yet, more and more of that pain is expressed through the increase of violence in our communities and schools.
Violence as inarticulate pleas for help
The Navaho have a way of describing someone who has committed a crime as “someone who acts as if he or she has no relatives….” Look at what’s happening with our young people in schools: as of June 9, 2014, we have had 74 school shootings since December 14, 2012 when 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. When will we hear these crimes as the inarticulate pleas for help that they represent? What if violent crimes are expressions of the pain of this alienation, an attempt to exorcize the despair of not feeling part of a community? The very way we live right now reinforces that loss of connection, yet it largely remains invisible and unspoken. Are we willing to take a hard look and begin to articulate the greater social breakdowns that produce this estrangement?
So much of this personal despair is pathologized as individual failure. Our current societal reaction is to lock up those expressing this pathology, which has led to what is aptly called “the prison-industrial complex”:
· 1 in 34 Americans is under some form of correctional supervision,
· 1 in 107 Americans is in prison, and
· 1 in 28 school-aged children in the US has an incarcerated parent.
Yet we continue to believe “the other” is responsible and that crime, victimization, and incarceration are not problems that directly concern, include, or affect us. But they do.
Living in the prison between our ears
The prisons between our ears fuel our own fear-based thoughts, and more guns and more prisons have begun to confine us as well. By locking people up instead of facing the causes of this epidemic of violence, we remain in denial as a society about the causes of violence. Many of us are feeling disconnected, feeling shame and personal failure about not belonging to a meaningful relationship or community. Violence thinly masks this pain that’s trying to wake us up. Perhaps nowhere more than in our prisons is evidence of how we’ve projected our fears of the other—the shadow in our society. This fear of the other is at the heart of why so many minorities are incarcerated, and many of us live in denial of how we project this fear.
A new definition of success
Our societal belief is that “making it” is tied to material success. This definition of success has so distorted our view that we have all but completely forsaken that which connects us; we are designed and wired as human beings to need one another and belong to each other. What if achieving success meant knowing how to love and be loved; how to be present; how to truly listen? This is the kind of success we work to impart through the Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program with incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison. As someone engaged in facilitating this program, I feel mysteriously completed by connecting with these men, whom many of us see and fear as the “other” or as “monsters.” Perhaps I feel a deeper “belonging” by being a part of transforming the collective denial this projection represents. I can’t think of any other activity where I would have grown as thoroughly by serving in this manner.
Transforming our pain through love
Again, what if we understood all these crimes as expressions of a greater social breakdown, as inarticulate pleas for help—many of them damn inarticulate to be sure—but pleas nonetheless. What if we understood that, as Rainer Maria Rilke said; “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love?” Then how would we deal with crime and punishment? Over time, and through the GRIP work, I have begun to see these connections on another level: in witnessing that deep shame can be transformed into true remorse it becomes possible to return to an authentic way of being and interacting. In learning how “violence is the tragic expression of unmet need,” (Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Way of Life) the fundamentals of what leads to lasting peace emerge. In discovering that “I am the other you” and “you are the other me,” we participate in our shared destiny as human beings in a most fulfilling manner.
In practicing together how to “sit in the fire,” how to tolerate and befriend overwhelming emotions, I’ve found that a mature dignity takes hold. In healing these wounds together, we celebrate a more complete expression of how, as human beings, we are designed to need each other for our own self-realization.
The Guiding Rage into Power Program takes the abstraction and perceived Pollyannaish nature out of words like “love” and “forgiveness” and makes experiencing them very practical. Our methodology does not aim to produce love and forgiveness. Rather, they become natural outcomes of learning how to listen deeply to one another. Engaging in this practice successfully with maximum security violent offenders only makes that journey more compelling.
Remembering who we are
As part of GRIP, people are encouraged to move from shame to remorse and to make a distinction between the person and the behavior. Prisoners are told that instead of being bad people who are to be forever shamed by our judgment, we regard each other as those who forgot who we truly are when we transgressed. An essential next step is welcoming each other into being full members of a GRIP Tribe, a learning community in which everyone is encouraged to remind each other of who we truly are, and to practice the skills to remember quickly who we are, should we ever forget again.
The project articulates another way of serving a prison sentence. In fact, to run prisons that embrace this methodology would better serve public safety, help to prevent re-victimization, and save billions of dollars. It would also bring back a dignity to us as a culture—where it really matters—to humbly re-teach those values we hold dear and to recognize one another anew as belonging together to something greater that guides us.
Jacques Verduin, MA Somatic Psychology, a subject matter expert on mindfulness, restorative justice, emotional intelligence and transforming violence, is a father, community organizer and a teacher. He directs ‘Insight-Out’ which organizes initiatives for prisoners and challenged youth that create the personal and systemic change to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing.
© Jacques Verduin. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.
Watch a video of Jacques, at a plenary session at our Global Gathering, discussing GRIP and sharing a film clip depicting the program.