I was reminded of a bit of wisdom I gained in prison recently. I had a friend going through rough times, and he started venting some of his frustrations and concerns to me. After a minute, he stopped and laughed, then said, “You know, Mike, I almost forgot you were in prison. Here I am venting to you, yet you hardly ever complained about the stuff you were going through back then. Why haven’t you told me to shut the hell up and toughen up?!”
Not surprisingly, this conversation got me thinking about the same question: why didn’t I say, ‘shut up and get tough’ when people complain to me? I remember one particular day early in my incarceration. I was 23 with a severe charge and a slim chance of going home in a dorm full of guys in similar situations. After spending enough time in this headspace, you get used to the weight of the problem, and you begin to carry on with life as best as possible (and that is a very simplified summary of it).
This particular day I got a new roommate. His name was Dillan, and he was about my age. He had only been in a day for his first parole violation. He was another case of a young kid addicted to prescription pills who couldn’t shake the habit. I could tell the reality of what his future looked like had not set in yet. Right around lockdown that night, it finally caught up with him.
I remember watching him ruminate about how this time in jail was about to upend his whole life, a thought we all had at one point.
“Man, I had a good job out there. It paid well, and I was able to get it with a record and everything, no question. I already know that’s gone when I get out.”
I listened as he said this, which was hard to stomach considering I had been sitting in jail almost a year already. He continued, “My family needs me. My baby mom has my little boy, and she can barely make ends meet. It was hard enough last time I was gone. I don’t know if she will be there for me this time.”
I didn’t know what to say to him, considering I was in the throes of my own crisis. I realized that it did not matter how severe my problem was compared to his. He was in a tailspin, just like me. Our future was uncertain, a lot of options looked bleak, and only a miracle could save us, so it seemed. I would eventually meet many people going through a similar struggle to a greater or lesser degree. Although our situations were different, our struggle and pain were the same. I was forced to realize how minor my struggle was not long after when I heard that a guy in the room next to me had lost his brother in a car accident. Hearing him on the phone that night was as gut-wrenching a conversation as I ever heard. I remember thinking, what are my minor problems compared to his.
My friend, who had been venting to me, was not the first to mention my surprising lack of chastisement for complaining about trivial matters. How could I when I had felt something similar at one point in my life? Just because my situation was worse did not mean another’s pain was any less real. Most times, the person complaining is either trying to talk themselves through the problem or seeking honest advice from someone they trust. One of the quickest ways to get someone to shut down is to tell them to stop being weak.
This was one of the many lessons learned from prison. Yes, it is hard. And yes, the struggles you go through in there are some of the worst a man can endure. Why should that be the only badge you wear when going back into the fold of your family, friends, and society? Yes, you made it out of prison. Yes, you might be a very disciplined and rugged individual. That, alone, does not help your people when they are struggling. As I came back into the free world, I learned this because telling friends and family to tough it out only closed them off from coming to me for help.
This understanding coupled with an overwhelming thought of “who am I, now that I am free?” begged the question, ‘What purpose do I serve among my people?’ I was not the breadwinner, the patriarch, philosopher, clown, or king. I cannot say what everyone’s situation was upon leaving, but I know this is a question we all ask ourselves, whether having been incarcerated or not. What I had was a rare glimpse into overwhelming difficulties few will ever know. These difficulties, I now see, are not so different from what people go through on the streets. Because of prison, I, and everyone else who has been incarcerated, gained the rare ability to handle extreme situations for extended periods.
One of the keys to successful reentry is a strong community to help support you emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Inevitably the question ‘What can I do for them?’ will come from the inner workings of your caring spirit. How will you answer that call? Maybe you are not the leader, the comedian, or the philosopher. But you are the person who knows how to get through the ‘Shit’ and come out better. This is your purpose; how will you attend this call?
The most critical attribute of freedom we lack is a sense of purpose and duty. The feeling that says we are relied upon by our people for this reason. It is the question that haunts us most, for seldom do we have a good and honest answer. Few will understand the pain in our stories. However, this time we endured in prison, we can turn into an incredibly useful tool. We can better serve our loved ones by helping alleviate their pain through our shared experience.
I cannot precisely recall what my friend’s problem was that day. I know I did not have the miracle solution for him, unfortunately. What I told him, though, were two thoughts I ascribed to while in the mud of a past life; ‘this will pass,’ and ‘enjoy the little things you have.’ It wasn’t some secret lore or ancient text. It was something he was subconsciously aware of but had yet to understand the depth of what it meant because, fortunately, or not, he had never been through a situation where survival depended on it. Now, here he was, needing help. By taking those challenging moments we endured, we can help others out of theirs. That is the gift we have to give.