A friend and teaching colleague “graduated” from incarceration less than a year ago. He had spent decades of his 50+ years in one prison or another. He found the transition to life on the street immensely challenging, disheartening, constrictive and, maybe hopeless.
Last weekend, he lost his life walking on Interstate-5 in the middle of the night, in the middle of a southbound lane. According to the man whose car struck and killed him, it seemed my friend was either WAY disoriented or he was intentionally there to be killed. I have emotionally caromed between grieving his loss and feeling appreciation for his having been in my life. I have lost the solid center where certainty and trust once dwelled. Hope has been dented, again.
As a volunteer in the prison where he lived these last 10 years, I witnesssed this man morph from being a burly, belligerent bully to a mature, confident, calm, skilled and caring individual. He would say “a changed man,” and many agreed with him.
As one of our Prison Project Peer Trainers, a lead facilitator in the year-long Nonviolent Communication course, my friend modeled his transformative process, guiding others along the path. His birth of hope was proof that hope is never out of our reach….well, that’s the idea anyway. In reality, hope can be like the suds in a pail of soapy water, skittling across the floor of life and then disappearing into a grate, cold underground. It can happen that fast.
After prison, he was sent to the county where he was convicted. His choice was to move in with his aging parents, his drug addicted daughter and her infant…not an ideal setting for starting over. The rural county he was sent to has few resources for guys with criminal records. His parole officer decided to consider him a “high risk” for sex offending, though his only conviction for sexual assault was in the 1980s. He was required to attend sex offender treatment, though he’d graduated from it before, even though the so-called therapist was merely an anger management teacher.
Given a difficult home situation, demands by community corrections, and lack of meaningful employment, he gradually succumbed again to believing the labels placed on him: deadbeat dad, sex offender, failure. His slide into hopelessness doomed any chance for redemption.
What is the source of hope and how can we reclaim it? Can we mop ourselves up and be wrung back into the pail using self empathy alone? In our darkest times, can we see enough of the “promised land” to motivate in that direction? Is the empathy and support of others a necessary part of the rescue?
In a Nonviolent Communication practice group (and many other types of group and individual therapy), we bring real life into a circle of trusted others. Having them witness what’s “alive” for us is part of the way we get our centers back. Getting empathy from others can be like a buoy, on which we float above our story, our trapped perspective, and back into dynamic presence with ourselves. Requesting of ourselves and others the things we need to regain our balance in community is important. Social animals flounder quickly in isolation. Lifting ourselves out of the ditch takes more than one back and two hands.
In a group, we would approach it this way:
Discuss and share:
· the context of our loss – what happened, what feelings are present, where in the body is that energy held, and what needs are most unmet in that situation?
· the value of grieving and experience that process
· our experience of hope, and how it manifests in our bodies
· strategies for jumpstarting the process and inviting others into our quest.