A convicted multiple-murderer stands in front of me, tears rolling down his cheeks.
We’re in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, and in many ways this man’s life depends on the fierce, don’t-you-dare-look-at-me-the-wrong-way image he projects most every moment of his day. But right now, as a memory surfaces – a face in his mind’s eye that has haunted him for nearly two decades, a classmate from grade school – he slips out of the “mask” that provides him protection and allows the pain to move through him.
We are standing in a reinforced concrete cube, roughly 40’ x 40’ x 40’, bare cinderblock walls stretch from cement floor to ceiling. This is the “chapel” on C Yard in Folsom Prison. Our circle is made up of seven prisoners and five “outside men” – men like myself who have come in for four days to offer them our time and our hearts. Three other groups like mine are spread out around the chapel.
This man, who is not yet thirty, was convicted of terrible crimes while still in his teens, and will spend most of his life behind bars. But today’s tears are not for any of those transgressions. They are for a moment in his early childhood when he watched his friends take advantage of a weaker boy and he didn’t stand up for what he knew was right.
Making a new choice
He could have made a different choice those many years ago, he says, but at the time he couldn’t find the courage to tell his friends to stop. And this is the place where he and I meet, in something every human can relate to: the fear of saying “No”, and the shame of something bad happening that we might have prevented.
He cannot change what went down that day. It is real; it is a fact. What he can do is allow himself to reveal the events to another human being – to speak aloud the words that have been screaming in his head, instead of desperately holding them in. The more he has tried to prevent others from knowing what he judges himself for, the more he has reinforced those very judgments. By giving voice to what he considers unspeakable, he can allow himself to do that most vulnerable of human actions: to feel emotion.
Before my eyes, he walks right out of prison. Not the prison of his convicted crimes – the prison of his mind.
Give yourself permission
We think that freedom is about having choices of what we can do with our time and our resources, and that a life sentence in prison would take away any man’s ability to be free. But what I’ve learned is this: a cornerstone of freedom is giving ourselves permission to say the things we thought we dared not reveal to anyone.
We don’t always find the courage to “do the right thing” in the moment. But if we hold our missteps over our heads for days, weeks, years, perhaps even decades, we place ourselves in a very real prison.
Just yesterday, walking in downtown Los Angeles, I saw a man lying in the middle of the sidewalk, apparently drunk and passed out. My gut wanted to ask if he needed help, but my fear caused me to recoil. A moment later, the man walking two steps behind me went to him to offer help. I felt a blanket of shame envelop me for the next twenty minutes, as I replayed the scene and judged that I should have acted more courageously.
It is so easy for judgment to invade our self-image and constrict our belief in who we are. We’ve all let people down: our employees, our customers, our suppliers, our investors… our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends… the men and women we pass on the street… and most of all, ourselves. Dare we acknowledge this, inwardly and outwardly, and move past our self-judgment? What might we now be capable of if we did?
Give yourself permission to speak the unspeakable. It’s the first step on the path to freedom.