Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Getting to the Marrow

by Troy Chapman

(published March 06)

I recently restarted my ethics workshop here at the prison. After all the administrative junk to get it ready and approved I walk into that first session and face a room full of men and feel like I’m looking at a rich quilt. Each face is a patch that has suffered hardship. Maybe it belonged to a garment that was discarded but then someone realized there’s still good material here that can be part of something else. All these patches, cut, shaped, and sewn together with love by an unseen hand, can become something more than any of them can be alone.

I made it a point to invite Muslims, Buddhists and Christians, as well as those who aren’t associated with any religion. Some I’ve known for years, some I’ve just met. They come looking for answers, these men who’ve lost their families, their freedom, their shot in life (some have been in prison for decades and are old men now). They come wondering if there’s some knowledge that can make sense of and give meaning to their journey.

I’m touched by the trust they show me by sitting in the school desk-chairs and allowing me to “lead” them in the class. Our collective brokenness makes us brothers — as does the hope we share, hope that we can he better people.

I talk about goodness and tell them we’re going to stay away from an “academic” study of ethics. We’re just going to talk about what it means to live decent lives in the real world. They nod their heads telling me this is right. I tell them I have no magic formulas or special knowledge (they know this already, I presume, but I’m letting them know I’m under no illusions about my own genius). All I know is that when people get together, with all their differences and shortcomings, to talk about the kind of things we’re going to talk about, something happens. Something bigger than the parts that are so joined.

It’s as if the answers we seek are hidden in the spaces between us and when we listen, really listen to one another and speak honestly, things become clear. Wordless things mostly, but things about the marrow of life.

The men ask questions — what about this, what about that? But the information exchange is a subtext. The real exchange is of ourselves — a bit of me for a bit of you — never spoken, but seen in the eyes.

We talk about what we can do for the younger guys coming into prison. We all shake our heads when we think about them. So young and confused and strutting — trying desperately to figure out how to be men. After we talk about ideas for a while and get ourselves centered as a group, we’re going to split into teams to come up with ideas for reaching out, selling our message to others.

Simple stuff. Just caring together and deciding to try to do something about it, even something small. I’ll keep you updated on our progress.

Practical action: Have a conversation with someone about our world and what ordinary people can do to realign things. This can be informal with one person, or more formally with a small group that sits down over coffee. Let me know what you come up with if you try it.