Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Choose Your Label

by Troy Chapman

Walking the yard today I heard one prisoner yelling at another, “Baby raper! Baby raper!” He was following the man across the yard and every so often he would call the prisoner’s name and shout out “Baby raper!” again. As I listened I thought about another prisoner I know who offers counseling to prisoners convicted of sex crimes, spending a couple of hours per prisoner several times each week on the yard.

I pondered the two roles fulfilled by these men and wondered what had brought them to these different places. It occurred to me that it was about how each had defined himself. The first man defined himself as an avenger, the second as a healer.

Later, as I continued to mull this over, I realized how life-changing it had been for me when I realized I have the power to define myself. I had lived the first 20 years of my life as a slave to inherited definitions of myself, labels others had stuck on me and I’d internalized. I was a victim, a villain, an activist, and even an extra at various times in my life. I had no idea that I could say yes or no to these labels. The moment I realized I possessed this power my life shifted into transformative mode and has remained in this mode for more than two decades. I had discovered one of the greatest powers possessed by any human being: the power to define myself.

If I had to guess, I would say the first man I mentioned above, the one who saw himself as an avenger and a punisher, hadn’t consciously chosen this role for himself. It’s likely a secondhand self image he’s picked up somewhere in life, probably from other righteous abusers, as I think of them. I would bet that, like me years ago, he is unaware of the power he possesses — the power to consciously choose his own role in life.

Sadly, this seems to be widely true of humanity, so I want to spend this month talking about this enormous power, about how to consciously choose to define ourselves in accordance with our own personal values.

Sketch by Troy Chapman

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