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Tenacity of Turtles

baby sea turtle on sand

On the final day of my vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I took one last morning walk along the pristine white sand beach. As the sand was warming in the morning sun, the waves were doing what waves do, gently creeping onto the beach with commitment and surety. Predictably, most of the vacationers were sleeping off their sunburns or over-celebration from the night before. Sober and protected by SPF 60, at seven in the morning I was not distracted by the strolling tourists or the local vendors pushing silver bracelets or woven hammocks. Instead, I was able to concentrate on nature’s elegance and the intimate relationship between all living things which unfolded during my farewell stroll.
Witness to Birth
A few feet ahead there was a little movement in the sand which I suspected was a sand crab emerging from its cool sand burrow just long enough to catch a little morning sustenance. As I approached, I realized there were actually two little critters but they were not sand crabs at all. They were brand new, barely hatched baby sea turtles, no bigger than the palm of my hand.
There was a disturbing documentary which came immediately to mind. Images flooded my mind of heavily pregnant momma sea turtles waddling up onto the beaches to give birth to their litter. The mother would burrow a deep hole into the moist sand to lay hundreds of baby sea turtle eggs. She would frantically cover them up with her clumsy fins in an effort to protect them from predatory birds seeking an easy score of a meal. I don’t remember just how long those eggs would remain there, or how frequently or infrequently momma would come back to check on her little ones. What I did remember was that once hatched, the little ones begin a desperate struggle from the hole to the ocean to the safety of the sea before the circling seagulls plucked them into their beaks and flew off, fighting against other seagulls for what would be a juicy meal.
The entire documentary was quite disturbing to me; the desperate mother, the hundreds of little abandoned babies being lifted into their air by a swarm of ravenous birds as the babies underdeveloped little fins were flailing in a desperate attempt to survive.
Urge to Protect
Now, standing on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas, I was looking at wonder at the two little creatures I was now holding in the palm of my hand.
The evolutionary process developed a slight bit of protection for new hatchings; most sea turtle eggs hatch during the cool night, affording the little turtle babies the cloak of darkness to make their way to the sea. These two baby turtles were tenacious fighters as it was likely they had struggled all night against the tide, attempting to navigate their way into the safety of the ocean waters.
In the documentary it stated it was important it was for the little turtles to work their way to their freedom, how important it was for them to build the muscles during the experience of the struggle. The fight for survival would prepare them to swim away from the enemies which awaited in the deep blue. But it was not simply the strongest who survived the ordeal of the hatching; it was also a bit of luck of the draw. Why was one little turtle relegated to bird food while the one right next to it found clear passage to the ocean? Why did one little guy find the oncoming waves impenetrable while the other was simply lifted on the crest of a wave to the safety of the deep-sea?
We All Need Protection
I started to think how the life of the turtle resembled the life of humans to a great extent. Some humans are unfortunately born at the bottom of the pack and far more likely to get eaten by hovering predators than the first few who might slip into safety, unnoticed. Some humans are battered, beaten, abused and pumped full of drugs and bombarded with examples of poor decision-making. Others are born in the privilege of nurturing. And some, very few, benefit from a hand that reaches into the sand to rescue us from the enemy.
Would it do the little turtles any good to bemoan their plight? Of complain that someone was born more closely to the top of the pile than the others? Would it make success more likely if the last one out of the hole refused to move because of the unfairness of his situation?
What We Do With What Is
What matters most is what we do with the reality with which we are faced. These two little sea-bound siblings didn’t stop for one moment to seek help, nor did they give up or believe the ocean was bigger than their will to survive. All they knew was no matter the circumstance, they needed to use every bit of baby fin muscle to get to safety. As I held them in my hands, their little fins never stopped frantically attempting an escape from what I am sure they perceived to be a huge complication in reaching their goal.
I set one of the little guys down on the sand hoping for his success in navigating over the incoming tide. A gentle wave came in and the little guy, struggling though he may, was lifted up and thrust six feet or more further away from his goal. Retrieving the tenacious turtle from flailing on his back, I decided if they were going to make it to safety, I would have to get my hands dirty and my feet wet. They had proven themselves as far as I was concerned. If they were hatched the previous night then it meant they had already had a six hour workout. Their muscles were plenty strong and there was no value in making things any more difficult. I decided I was going to walk into the water, beyond the waves, and get them far enough past the incoming tide so at least that part of their struggle was behind them.
Reaching a water level up to my waist, I let the two critters find their freedom out of my hands into what seemed an entire ocean resisting their efforts. My assistance was futile. They were washed up on the beach more quickly than I could make it back to protect them from a larger oncoming wave which pushed them even further onto the sand. I glanced overhead to check the location of the hovering seagulls. Luckily, my only obstacle was going to be the ocean for the time being.
Facilitating Freedom
I thought about my work in the prisons and with individuals who face the most insurmountable disadvantage I was blessed to have escaped. I thought about the little girls violated or the little boys bullied. I thought about addicted mothers or enraged fathers. I thought about the mentally challenged, the indigent, illiterate and the helpless and hopeless. How many baby turtles existed in the thousands of prisons throughout our nation? Individuals who had little chance of making it to safety.
The difference between the turtles and humans is that the turtles will not stop moving toward their goal. If they are gobbled up, it was not because they abdicated their right to fight for their freedom. With humans, there is a disabling hopelessness which floods the belief system and paralyzes the effort for freedom. Knowing these two little critters were symbolic of my commitment to provide a glimmer of hope for any and all individuals, I would stop at nothing to do my part in helping them get their shot at freedom.
One, two, three times I attempted to get them beyond the surf. It seemed as if my efforts were wasted, and I was becoming exhausted in my fight against the relentless incoming waves. Tears came. Not just for the little turtles, but for all little turtles. Why was freedom so unreachable for some and so disrespected by others? As the strength in one of the little critters seemed to wane, a surge of energy jolted through my body fueling me with what felt like a super-human commitment to secure the turtle’s safety. I met the next wave, and the wave after that with indignant persistence. When I could no longer touch the ground I gently closed my hands around the soft bodies swam even further into the ocean. Past the breakwater I was able to catch my breath a bit, realizing if they were to be safe, this was the place and now was the time. I loosened my grip and let them drift out of my loosely held grip.
A Little Helps
As I let the current take me back toward the beach I felt relieved, satisfied really. I had done my part, gone beyond the call of duty to give life a chance at living. For all I know, both of them could have ended up as fish food within moments of making to the ocean, but that was not the point. I did what I could to help them as far along as I possibly could. For that, I was content. I did not give them a handout and a bag full of worthless pity. I did not enable them by making it too easy. They had built their muscles and proven their commitment over time. But when it came right down to it, all of the struggle in the world, all the tenacity they could muster was never going to get them a shot at freedom. They needed someone bigger and more powerful to lend a little hand, to have compassion on their sincere effort. At that moment in time, I was in the right place at the right time and I was willing to provide them with that extra little push.
As I returned to my room and washed the sand out of my hair in preparation for my flight back to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but hope that on my next visit I would come across another set of hatchlings, and with any luck, they would be the tenacious offspring of the two little ones I had helped find an opportunity for freedom.

Unlikely Success: The Story of LaDawn Bell

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

LaDawn Bell was ushered into the Los Angeles County Jail GOGI Campus program shortly after her ump-teenth arrest, her rap sheet was longer than the receipt from a full-day of shopping at Costco.  A career and habitual criminal, LaDawn had not been out of prison very long before she was back to her old tricks of drug use and stealing other people’s property to pay for her addiction. She landed in GOGI Campus because one officer began dumping his least favorite and troublesome inmates into the campus claiming he needed the bed space for “overflow.”

            “When is your next court hearing?” I asked in a rare one-on-one interview with the new girls who had made it into campus.

            “I go back to court next week,” she stated.  “Coach,” she added with intense seriousness, “this is my third strike.  I blew it.  I am going to be doing the rest of my life in prison.”

            As she stated this inevitable fact, she didn’t cry.  She was just stating the facts.  She knew she had gambled and lost. She knew the ropes.  Do the crime? You do the time.  California was firm on the three strikes law. Three felonies proved you were a persistent threat to society and 25-to-life is what you were going to get. 

            “Who is your judge?” I asked.

            “Ito,” she replied.

            My experience with Judge Lance Ito was less than the entire world’s contact with that particular Compton Court judge.  Most of the world sat glued to their television sets as Judge Lance Ito presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.  My exposure to the decider of people’s fates was limited to his oversight of cases brought against Teri Shedarowich and Erin Iwakiri, two GOGI Girls whose diligent work in the campus warranted my appearance in court.

I knew the drill in his courtroom.  He preferred facts and didn’t mind hearing directly from the accused.  Some judges prefer to communicate only with the Public Defender.  Judge Ito, I had learned, was not against letting the accused make a statement or two. 

What I didn’t know was if Judge Ito would give me another women, bypassing the three strikes sentencing and letting me keep LaDawn Bell in GOGI Campus, instead.  There was a logistics challenge, however, as the longest I could request was a year of jail time.  Anything more than a year of time required a prison stay.  The likelihood of him permitting a year of county time over 25 in the company of CDCR was slim.  Still, we were going to give it a shot. 

“Coach, I am done,” she said.

“We don’t know that,” I replied.

“No, Coach.  I mean I am done with that life.  I truly am,” she said.

One thing you learn when you are in jails or prisons is not to believe conversions or commitment of life changes from anyone relegated to wearing a tracking number and wristband.  It’s usually just jail talk making up their confined conversations. In most cases, it all gets forgotten when the door is unlocked and the meth pipe is pulled out of the dresser drawer.  Still, there was something in her eyes; something I knew was not the same-ol’ flapping of the jaws and wishful thinking.

“How do you know?” I asked. “How do you know you are ready?”

She paused for a moment before thoughtfully responding, making the full-on eye contact that only comes with honesty.

“I dunno, Coach.  I just know.”

I knew she knew.  And I knew there was enough muscle within her to actually succeed, if she became humble enough to turn over her decision making to the grooming and learning she would receive in GOGI Campus.

“OK.  Here is what we are going to do.  I am going to bypass campus rules, make you the President of the Campus and I am going to go into court with you and ask Judge Ito to give you to me for a year instead of prison.”

The tear running down her cheek was likely to have been the first tear making its way out of her broken heart for many years.

“You don’t even know me,” she said.

“I have very good instincts, LaDawn.  I think you can be a great GOGI leader.  I think you are done and I am going to make a stand for you.  But you are going to need to learn everything you can about GOGI, learn the tools, and be prepared to tell the Judge why you think this will work.”

“Alright, Coach.  I can do that,” she replied.

“You better do it because I am putting my reputation on the line for you,” I said with every bit of seriousness the situation deserved. “If other women are to get this chance at changing their lives it is going to be because you do not fail.  I will not let you fail. There is too much at stake. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“You will not fail. Are we clear?” I stated.

“Yes, Coach.  I got it.”  

Announcing to the Campus that I was going to bypass all campus protocol and place LaDawn Bell, a career criminal, a shot caller, an active addict, a woman with a proclivity for getting into physical fights who was admittedly self-serving into the coveted position of Campus President nearly caused a mutiny. 

“That’s not fair,” one of the girls declared.

“I know,” I replied.

“She doesn’t even know the tools,” stated another.

“I know,” I replied.

“You don’t know her like we know her, Coach.  LaDawn Bell? She ain’t no good,” said another.

“I know,” I replied.

“But, Coach, you said this was our campus. We didn’t vote for her,” another chimed in.

“I know,” I replied.

LaDawn and I stood at the front of the group, united solidly in the stand we were making against the barrage of objection.  

I let them vent for a while and then the room went silent. It was my turn to explain myself.

“I don’t ask much from you.  I come here and teach you to be strong and self-sufficient and I am very proud of each and every one of you for learning to be strong, self-sufficient.  Now I need a favor.  I think we can help turn LaDawn’s life around but I need time. She has court next week and if we all prepare her, we might be able to keep her from spending the rest of her life in prison.  I need you to do me a favor and support LaDawn as President until after her court date.  I am going to court asking if the judge will give her to GOGI for a year.  If she is Campus President, we just might have a shot.  Can I have your support?  Will you raise your hand if you will help me by voting for LaDawn as the temporary President of GOGI Campus?”

Most of the hands crept cautiously upward, making certain that they were not the only one endorsing my calling this shot which rattled the very core of our rules.

            The women in the campus resented me, I am sure.  They undoubtedly thought I had been swindled by a self-admitted con artist, I am sure.  They wodl be regressing to the eroding poison of gossip and criticism in the hours that followed, I suspected.  I knew all the damages to be repaired at a later date.  But this was a life raft I felt compelled to toss out, even if it caused others to need to swim a little more. 

            The campus focus turned toward preparing LaDawn, and everyone else to present themselves well in front of their Judges for their upcoming hearings.  Long after I left the campus each night the women were in their requisite rehearsals on what they would say to the judge, the jury, the DA and how they would describe their commitment to positive decision making to their Public Defender.

            LaDawn began to blossom. I could see it happening in the courtroom rehearsals.  She was speaking more confidently about GOGI and about her commitment to change with each mock hearing.  Still, we had a long way to go and a short amount of time with which to make it happen. 

 

 

JUDGE ITO

 

While it was likely LaDawn was sitting in some holding cell in the basement of the courthouse, I was still inching my way eastward on the 105 freeway, slowly traveling past the jail as the sun was coming up, toward the Compton Courthouse which housed Judge Ito’s court.  The security line in the morning at courthouses is long, each person being screened and x-ray inspected before they fill the overcrowded elevators up to their respective courtrooms. 

            I took my seat, choosing that place where LaDawn could identify me quite easily without breaking the rule not to communicate with anyone in the audience.  When she was escorted in her jail uniform, handcuffed with the bailiff by her side, she truly looked as if she felt quite comfortable in this familiar surrounding. Admittedly, she looked like a career criminal.

            At the last minute, a few GOGI volunteers joined me, women who had been released and were making a stand for other women in a similar situation.

            “You made it,” I said with the beam of a proud mother on my face.

            “The matter of LaDawn Bell,” the judge said, moving a massive file before him.

            “Ah, she ain’t neva gettin’ out,” was the comment from the woman seated directly behind me as she observed the huge record of a lifetime of crime being opened by the judge.

            Most of the court cases were thin-file infractions of one law or the next.  None of the sentences that morning had been serious, nor were their crimes, and the files were not massive, as was the case with LaDawn Bell.  The judge’s reliance on the District Attorney to dole out the sentence with the prior cases was not a good omen for our GOGI Girl and her extensive file. The judge actually needed to use muscle leverage to move her file into place.  I had never seen that before. For good reason, District Attorney types don’t take too kindly to criminal files that are thicker than a Bible, Koran and Buddhist meditation book all stacked together. 

            LaDawn stood and her public defender began his introduction in the now-familiar ritual that would ultimately lead to a decision by the courts. Charges were read.  Then the judge consulted the top papers in the file.  The Public Defender stated something about giving her another chance. The tension was mounting and I was praying LaDawn would remember what we had rehearsed.  She was to ask to speak to directly to the court.

            She leaned into the Public Defender and the negative shake of his head let me know she had asked the appropriate question.

            Now I only prayed she would follow the rest of my instructions. I held my breath and closed my eyes.

            “Don’t fail me, LaDawn.  Don’t fail me,” I said to myself, and God, and LaDawn, and any guardian angels up there who might have an interest in the outcome of this case.

            “Your honor, Judge Ito,” she said.

            My heart began pumping again.

            The Public Defender tried to silence her.

            The DA shut her file and looked up in dismay.

            The judge calmly raised his eyes from the file and replied.

            “Yes, Miss Bell?” he said.

            “Your Honor, I have made a lot of mistakes but I am in the GOGI program and I can do it now. I know what I need to do.  The program director is right over there. Can she talk to you for a minute?”

            That one came out of left field, but I didn’t have a choice but to be ready.

            “What program?” he asked.

            “Getting Out By Going In.  Coach Taylor is right there,” she said as she pointed to me.

            “Alright, Ms. Bell. We will hear from Coach Taylor of Getting Out By Going In,” he said as I instinctively stood and walked to the little swinging door dividing the courtroom from the audience.

            “State your name,” someone said.  It was not clear who said it because my brain was too occupied with what the heck I might say.  LaDawn had been in the rehearsals, not me.  This was supposed to be her spotlight, not mine.  The room suddenly went a little fuzzy. For me, there was no one in focus but LaDawn Bell and Judge Lance Ito and the District Attorney hovering in the peripheral of my vision.

            “Your Honor,” I began.  The rest of what I said is not in my memory.  It’s on a court record transcript buried in some file somewhere.  I know I stated that I needed her. That she was president of the custody campus where women were learning to make positive decisions and she had been elected to lead 24 women and something about wasn’t it a good thing that she was leading for good instead of doing the same prison routine that never worked for her anyway? I remember the jest of the introduction to a new possibility in corrections. What I also remember is that LaDawn cried.  I cried.  And the judge looked as if he was nearly moved to tears himself.

            The District Attorney reiterated the career nature of Ms. Bell’s record, the fact that she had failed every program to which he had sentenced her, and that he had given ample opportunity in the past for Ms. Bell to correct her behavior.  She even mentioned the fact that LaDawn started committing crimes when she was nine years old.  I didn’t really hear anything but gibberish coming from her irritated mouth, it meant nothing to me.  I just kept my solid focus on my brave GOGI Girl LaDawn and Judge Lance Ito.

            “Please?” I chimed in.

            The silence turned my focus to the pounding of my heart, which nearly deafened me to what was said by the judge. 

            The girls called it a God Shot, one of those blessings from heaven that no one expects would ever become a reality, like the complete and total instant remission of a terminal cancer.  And that is what it was like, it was almost as if in that singular second of grace, Judge Lance Ito eradicated any residual criminal presence from the emotionally broken and bruised woman named LaDawn Bell who was standing before him.

            The court record became law.  LaDawn Bell became under the supervision of GOGI with a 3 year probation which required her to complete GOGI programming, a formal drug program and he made it very clear she would be severely, and he meant severely punished if she was ever seen in that courtroom again.

            “The only time you are going to see me here again is when I come in to get my record expunged,” she replied, sending a warm chuckle of hope throughout the courthouse.

            And with that the large files documenting the previous life of LaDawn Bell was closed.  She was led out of the courtroom without the ability to glance back at the row of supporters wiping tears from their eyes.

The girls and I returned to our cars, chatting about the magical moments occurring in that courtroom on the way. When they had each left the parking structure I remained in my car, and I cried.  What happened in that courtroom just did not happen.  Things did not go down that way. 

I felt a wave of humility, which begged the question burning in my soul, “What more can I do to be of service?”

 

EPILOGUE

LaDawn Bell ~ successfully completed GOGI and the Amity drug program and for the first time in her adult life, she was released from court supervision.  She was employed at Direct TV where they were promoting her to shift manager.  After more than two years of success as a law-abiding and sober citizen, Coach Taylor and LaDawn returned back to Judge Lance Ito’s court to begin expungement process.  She was instructed to return to court in June, 2013, when the process could formally begin. 

While waiting for the expungement of her record which would permit her to increase her employment options, LaDawn began her own GOGI Coaching of young girls on the street corners, often taking them into her home and sobering them up and telling them their lives were worth more.  While on the way to a fundraising event in Manhattan Beach she and Coach Taylor discussed her future.

“Coach, I didn’t know real people lived like this,” she said on the drive through an affluent beach community.

“Honey, you can live like this,” Coach Taylor replied.

“Aint’ that something.  I spent my whole life in prison and here I am, driving with you in Manhattan Beach.  Coach, I wanna live like this,” she said.  “I wanna live like this.”

LaDawn Bell was a regular volunteer at GOGI and finally a good mother to her son, good grandmother to her only grandchild, and an example for her sisters.  On the way to her father’s 70th birthday, January 16th, 2013 at 7:20 pm, LaDawn Bell was the innocent victim of a bullet intended for her niece. 

She died instantly. 

FORGIVE is Freedom

Are you ready for freedom?

In my work with our nation’s 2.3 million men, women and children locked away in prisons and jails, I have witnessed the transformation of lives to such a degree that I might have considered them miracles, had I not also participated in the individuals’ ability and then choice to apply simple positive decision-making tools to their lives which led to the miraculous change. When tools for positive decision-making are learned and then applied, miracles seem to emerge on their own and quite naturally, like a single wild flower in a barren desert landscape.

This type of miracle, the transformation of an entire life, is not so much divine intervention resulting from hours of solitary prayer in some jail cell but, rather, a natural result of making consistent choices. Somehow, when applying simple tools for positive decision making for a sustained period of time, increasing numbers of men, women and children experience freedom from the seemingly never-ending Loop of Harm which has plagued their lives and perpetuated additional injury to themselves and others.

I have witnessed these life-changing “miracles,” these little wild flowers blooming in the desert, in my role as founder and executive director of Getting Out By Going In (GOGI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the teaching and sharing of tools for positive decision making we call the Twelve Tools of GOGI. My life is spent in the barren environments of our nation’s prisons and jails. My life’s calling is to share twelve simple tools for positive decision making which are designed to help anyone, anywhere, get out of their own mental prison by going inward for the answers.

My work with GOGI has consumed a decade of my attention and dedication. And, as a result of meeting with tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals, and after listening, strategizing, and then teaching and empowering, I can say with great certainty that positive change is neither as difficult as we perceive to obtain nor is it challenging for us to maintain. What keeps us tethered to pain in our lives is the Loop of Harm, reliving the thoughts, words or actions which have failed to get us better results. This Loop of Harm, which feels so real, which causes so much pain, is actually nothing more than an illusion, a cloud of disempowerment which obscures our view of the vast levels of freedom available to any living being, incarcerated or not. The Loop of Harm can be eliminated with one simple tool: FORGIVE.

The Incarcerated Understand the Loop of Harm

No other group of humans has caused more harm or had more harm thrust upon them than the incarcerated. In our nation we have 2.3 million men, women and children who sit in tiny cells in prisons and jails scattered in every corner of the country. I have listened to their histories, their childhoods, their crimes, their addictions, their excuses, their reasons, their regrets, their sorrows and their resolve to make things right. With a majority of our incarcerated emerging from neglect, poor parenting, poor education, lack of supervision, abuse, abandonment, mental health challenges, and self-medicating addiction, our nation’s incarcerated have taught me a thing or two about FORGIVE.

In working with those who have the most to FORGIVE, or the most to be forgiven for, I have had the opportunity to look more closely at the components of the process of FORGIVE, as those who seek forgiveness and those who forgive are oftentimes the first individuals to break the cycle of the Loop of Harm. I have observed the lives of individuals who live in the Loop of Harm perpetuated by the cloud of self-injury called guilt, remorse, blame, shame, insecurity and hopelessness. These individuals re-live the harm over and over again, at the expense of creating an environment for healing. This does not mean it is appropriate to avoid feelings of guilt or remorse; what it means is that at a certain point, the Loop of Harm must come to an end and the feelings and actions of the individual must move beyond the harm to a more positive and productive state. Even in experiencing or causing the most unforgivable act, FORGIVE will put an end to the perpetuation of additional injury to self and others.

Forgiveness is not FORGIVE

Here is what I now understand through conversations with convicted criminals (which make up the most prevalent conversations I have held over the past 10 years): There is a difference between “forgiveness” and the GOGI tool FORGIVE. Forgiveness is a concept which is oftentimes hard to grasp while the GOGI tool FORGIVE provides specific actions which lead to forgiveness. Until we have the tools to move beyond the harm, until we can move into action with forgiveness, we are caught in the Loop of Harm, perpetuating injury to self and others long after the initial injury. Putting an end to the Loop of Harm is what happens when FORGIVE becomes a set of actions.

Here actions related to the GOGI tool FORGIVE:

1) FORGIVE REQUIRES PROTECTION – Getting distance from the injury.
2) FORGIVE IS ABOUT TIMING – Obtaining an adequate level of experience and learning beyond the injury.
3) FORGIVE STOPS THE HARM – Achieving a disconnection from injury.
3) FORGIVE IS FREEDOM – Creating decreased likelihood of similar injury and increased levels of service to others.
Let’s look at each of these four actions steps individually:

FORGIVE REQUIRES PROTECTION

FORGIVE cannot occur while one remains close to the possibility or experience of harm. Here are a few examples: A mother wants to help her son who has a meth addition, but every time the son comes home, the contents of her purse somehow end up missing. The mother tries to follow her religious belief and be a woman of forgiveness, knowing forgiveness is something she believes is important. She tries over and over again, but she keeps getting hurt, financially and emotionally. He promises he will stop and he does for a week or two, but he then vanishes in the middle of the night for a few weeks with her money, a piece of jewelry and one more chunk of her heart. This illustrates the critical key to FORGIVE. FORGIVE cannot happen for as long as the harm is still occurring. In fact, the mother is actually perpetuating and participating in the creation of new harm by attempting to FORGIVE without first securing adequate protection. The mother must have adequate protection from additional harm before FORGIVE should be undertaken.

Here are a couple more examples: A young girl cannot FORGIVE an abusive neighbor for as long as the neighbor has the potential to continue the abuse. And a boy cannot FORGIVE a bully at school for as long as the bully is perpetuating the harm. FORGIVE requires protection—protection from immediate injury to self or others.

But FORGIVE is not just about being out of harm’s way.

FORGIVE IS ABOUT TIMING

Age is often the determining factor in the timing aspect of FORGIVE. This is because during the years of our youth we experience many things for which we have no protection or from which we cannot protect ourselves. The beauty of aging is that there comes a time when we are no longer automatically the victim because of our size or dependency on adults. Even if we have caused the harm, age permits us the time and the ability to choose to strengthen ourselves beyond our injurious behaviors. Timing allows us to use learned and naturally occurring competencies and coping skills to FORGIVE.

Here are some examples. Rilen is spending the rest of his life in prison for committing a murder. In working with him to help him make better decisions in his life, he revealed that his father locked him in a dog cage outside of the house for many years of his youth. The treatment and abuse which were wielded upon this young child are truly unspeakable. When working on the GOGI tool FORGIVE he stated that until he was able to LET GO and FORGIVE, he continued to live in that cage. Only when he could FORGIVE was he set free from the cage of his abuse. FORGIVE freed him from the cage in his mind which could have existed long after he was released.

Another prisoner who I will call “Sally” was placed in a deep freezer by a stepfather who had burned her body with the ends of his cigarettes while forcing unthinkable sexual acts upon her. Her inability to FORGIVE kept her locked in to that abuse, causing sleepless nights, a lack of trust in all men and overuse of drugs to self-medicate. She could not feel “safe enough” to permit FORGIVE to free her. She remained trapped in the Loop of Harm and her entire life played out as if she remained in the deep freezer.

FORGIVE STOPS THE HARM

The most challenging aspect of harm is reconciling the fact that the person causing the harm seems to move beyond the harm with no problem. They leave you in the Loop of Harm and simply move on, creating other loops for other victims. The injured person may even sustain more injury as a result of the person’s callous ability to simply move on. The Loop of Harm is exacerbated when the person causing harm smiles, threatens, or pretends nothing happened.

Here is a real-life example: For his entire childhood, a man suffered at the hands of his father. Beatings, drunken rages and verbal abuse were commonplace. The son eventually succumbed to the drinking he so hated in his father and lived out a couple of tortuous decades becoming the very thing he hated. On the father’s deathbed the son said, “Dad…I FORGIVE you.” This was a big step for the son who had committed himself to a life of sobriety and moving beyond the horrors of his childhood. The father, who showed a moment of lucidity for the first time in several weeks, clearly stated, “Forgive me? Forgive me for what? What did I do? I didn’t do nothin’.” The father denied, until his dying moment, that he had inflicted harm of any kind. By acting on FORGIVE, however, the son was released from the persistent harm caused by the father, even though the father left this world believing he was guilty of nothing. If the son had gotten angry that his father would not accept responsibility, the son would have been thrust right back into the Loop of Harm and may have returned to the behavior he was struggling so diligently to overcome.

Later, the son reported that FORGIVE did not need to be a two-way street, nor did his father need to correct his behavior for FORGIVE to work. FORGIVE was the only way the son could get himself out of the Loop of Harm. FORGIVE was the only way to stop additional harm, irrespective of the participation of the other person.

FORGIVE works because it automatically stops the pain and instantly removes you from the position of victim. For as long as you do not FORGIVE you agree to play the part of the victim in the Loop of Harm. When you FORGIVE, you are no longer the victim in the Loop of Harm.
FORGIVE does not mean the harm did not happen. Rather, FORGIVE means you no longer agree to be the victim of the harm.

FORGIVE IS FREEDOM

Freedom from something provides us with freedom for something else. But, for as long as we participate as a victim, we cannot be free to be anything else. Some people might argue, “But, my entire life was ruined because of it. How can I not be a victim?” But what happened in the past is not the question. The question is, are you ready to out of the Loop of Harm which has been directing your life? The individual in the center of the Loop of Harm might reply, “But my entire life will be spent in prison because of my drug use. I can’t FORGIVE myself.” To that person, I would suggest that for as long as they wish to remain in the Loop of Harm, that is how long they will be a victim of their actions. If that is for the balance of their life, then they will exist in the Loop of Harm for the balance of their days.
Some of the most internally free individuals I have ever met will live the balance of their lives behind bars. They have made the conscious choice to not have their previous actions limit the service they can provide to others. They have decided that no matter what they have done, they want deeper and deeper levels of spirituality or religion; they long to be of service and put an end to the destruction of their community.
Even if we are the most persistent perpetrators, and even if we have wielded great harm on those we love, FORGIVE can provide a level of freedom which allows for great purpose in living: the purpose of being an example of the level of freedom which can be attained through service to others. Here is an example: At 17, a young man participated in the shooting murder of a rival gang member. He was sent to prison for the rest of his life. For as long as he behaves, thinks, and acts like a murderous gang member, he is not only perpetuating the harm he caused, but he is causing greater harm by perpetuating similar actions through his example. When he can FORGIVE himself, he can become an advocate for change, a teacher of the youngsters who falsely believe in and follow their gang mentality. Until he can FORGIVE, he continues to perpetrate harm on his community. When he removes himself from the Loop of Harm and no longer participates in the harm in any way, he then becomes part of the solution.

Putting FORGIVE into action items places the responsibility where it should be: with you. Forgiveness is a nice concept, but until it is broken down into do-able steps, it is a concept which often eludes us, causing us to sometimes feel inadequate or weak. FORGIVE, however, when used as a cognitive tool for healing, gives us four critical actions we can take to prepare ourselves for the freedom we can achieve from any atrocity we have inflicted or which has been inflicted upon us. In fact, most incarcerated individuals have a Loop of Harm filled with abuses they experienced before they became the abuser or the person causing harm. Regardless of how big or powerful your Loop of Harm may be, to act on FORGIVE and get out of the Loop of Harm is an option. Remaining in the Loop of Harm is a choice we can make, but it is not the only choice. And FORGIVE is the GOGI tool you can use to unlock the prison of your mind.

According to the GOGI Calendar, 2012 is the Year of FORGIVE, a year of focusing on the great power inherent in the freedom which comes from no longer participating in the Loop of Harm.

Is FORGIVE a tool you are prepared to use as you create the experience of this New Year? Here is the test. Just ask yourself the following four questions:

Am I in harm’s way, or is there a chance I may still cause harm if I attempt to FORGIVE?
Do I have enough information and am I strong enough to FORGIVE?
If I am no longer the victim, what am I? What might I become, if I am no longer a victim?
Am I prepared for the responsibility freedom provides or is it easier to remain in the Loop of Harm?
When you have the answers to these questions, you will know what must be done to free yourself. This new year is yours to create. FORGIVE can provide you with a ticket off the Loop of Harm, a freedom which will permit this year to be the best year yet. Are you ready?

FURTHER STUDY:
For individuals interested in FORGIVE, here are some questions for you to consider and actions for you to take:
1) FORGIVE REQUIRES PROTECTION – Getting distance from the injury. IS FORGIVE RIGHT FOR YOU? When considering if you can FORGIVE or not, ask these questions: “Am I in harm’s way, or is there a chance I may still cause harm if I attempt to FORGIVE? Is there protection from future harm?” These are the most critical questions to ask when embarking on FORGIVE. If you can honestly say that you are not in immediate danger, then FORGIVE will work for you. If you do not have protection, it is your opportunity to seek and secure protection so you can begin to FORGIVE.
2) FORGIVE IS ABOUT TIMING – Obtaining an adequate level of experience and learning beyond the injury. IS FORGIVE RIGHT FOR YOU? If you are considering FORGIVE, the question you can ask is: “Do I have enough information and am I strong enough to FORGIVE?” If the answer is “yes” then FORGIVE will work for you. If you do not believe you have the strength or new learning which you can depend on, then FORGIVE will not work. You must first learn more and be strong enough to believe you can avoid similar harm. If you are not strong enough, do what it takes to gain strength. If you do not have enough new learning, you can do whatever it takes to increase the knowledge you have.
3) FORGIVE STOPS THE HARM – Achieving a disconnection from injury. IS FORGIVE RIGHT FOR YOU? If you are considering FORGIVE, here is a question for you to ask yourself. “If I am no longer the victim, what am I?” Sometimes remaining a victim is a subtle permission for you to be less than your potential. Does remaining the victim provide you with something to think or talk about? Does it provide you with a legitimate reason not to be successful? Or happy? More often than not I find that the Loop of Harm, or consistently ruminating over a previous abuse, is a grand excuse to remain disabled. Is that what you do to yourself? “If I am no longer the victim, what am I? What might I become, if I am no longer a victim?” These are your questions in the process of FORGIVE.
4) FORGIVE IS FREEDOM – Creating decreased likelihood of similar injury and increased levels of service to others. IS FORGIVE RIGHT FOR YOU? If you are considering FORGIVE, you can ask yourself this question. “Am I prepared for the responsibility freedom provides or is it easier to remain in the Loop of Harm?” If you can accept the responsibility inherent in freedom, then, by all means, FORGIVE yourself and others. If you are not prepared for uncomfortable levels of responsibility which are inherent with freedom, then do whatever you can to prepare yourself through study, prayer, service and practicing tools for positive decision making.

When Silence Says it All

I wonder. Do we really need to use so many words to express ourselves or interpret our world?  The question comes to mind as I sit comfortably in a corner chair at the neighborhood coffee shop.  My otherwise peaceful time away from the office is thwarted by my inability to tune out the roar of mindless chatter; people exchanging one set of words for another and most not hearing a word the other is saying.

As I glance up from the screen of my new Mac Book, which is not quite as intuitive as the ads proclaim, it appears as if people are talking, but no one is really listening. They all appear to be on a sort of anticipatory pause waiting for a break in the words so they might cram their words into the open space. It’s more like an intricately timed overlapping of words between sips of overpriced hot water dripped over coffee beans.  From the chair I claim as temporarily mine, it seems as if words are what link us together, connect us, keep us tethered together in some superficial illusion of mutual understanding.

I suppose it is true, words are inescapable in this world where if it is not verbalized, texted, or tweeted it probably does not exist.  I take that back.  I popped into a drop-in massage studio last week and the Thai-looking petite woman who earned $45 an hour for working the knots out of my shoulders did not initiate the lobbying of comments or questions. Maybe she understood any conversation would have been forgotten as soon as the next client walked through the door. Or, maybe she didn’t speak English.  Whatever the reason, it was a sweet reprieve, not to hear words for a full 50 minutes.  Attempting to maximize the experience, I did my best to banish words from my thoughts during that blissful, wordless moment in time. It was truly a glorious escape from the almighty word.

I have been giving serious consideration to living a year of my life in silence. You read that right.  Not speaking for an entire year.  Saying nothing for a full 365 days.  As I seek deeper levels of a spiritual existence while doing my time on our lovely little planet Earth, it seems as if words frequently obstruct the spiritual journey, or, at the very least, slow down its progress.  Absence of words, then, may provide me with a rare opportunity to truly listen to the world around me. It might help me figure out a few lingering issues about life’s purpose and how best to serve others during my tenure here.

Can you imagine how you might perceive your world if you could truly observe all of its nuances while relieved of the obligation of adding your own commentary?  I wonder if those things that consume your thoughts would remain important if you did not empower them with a few paragraphs of opinion.

Listening is most certainly underrated.  Most individuals applaud the skilled wordsmith and orator.  We elect officials by their choice of words, not by a record of their deeds.  We marry and divorce due to words, not on the development of relationships that withstand harsh words.  We buy in to words telling us what we need to own, plunging our families and our entire nation into debt from which we must struggle to recover.

We are missing the fact that the true value of the life experience is found in carefully listening, and paying attention to the words chosen by others.  Listening permits us to learn, to assess and to experience the words of others.  When we speak, we tell the world a great deal about us, like turning over our hand in a critical poker game.  With our word choice, we reveal our limitations, our weaknesses, our preferences, our educational level as well as our interests and desires.  When we listen, however, we can observe and learn those things in others.  The person who speaks is exposed, in a way.  And their intentions will eventually surface if we let them chatter long enough.  Interestingly enough, the person who remains silent is in the optimal place of learning, able to take in all the information and eventually make the most powerful decision.

I remember the first time I instructed an entire module of female inmates held in the Los Angeles County Jail that I wanted them to be completely silent, not to say a word, not utter a peep for 24 hours.  I did this because there was a heightened amount of gossip ripping and the fabric of the therapeutic work I was doing with the women.  Rather than attempt to hold back the tidal wave of cross talk, I silenced them.  That night, as I closed the day with the closing of my eyes, I wondered how my students were doing, wordless for 24 hours, some wordless for the first time in their lives.

The following morning when I entered the silent module I received the requisite reports of minor infractions of “Coach Taylor’s Law,” but I was more surprised by what was shared after all the violations were reported. A majority of the women were grateful, grateful they were relieved of the obligation of communication. They told me they loved the silence, welcomed the disconnection for a period.  It gave them time to reflect on their life choices, to think, to meditate, and to pray.

As for my own life, I have maintained silence for a full 72 hour period when completing my ordination as an Interfaith Minister.  I chose 72 hours of silence simply because I did not want to engage in superfluous conversations. I did not want the distraction of words that may have gotten in the way of my ability to focus on my ordination and my commitment to helping people find internal freedom, regardless of where they awake each morning.

Silence is the subtle, and rarely used key to internal freedom. Silence empowers us to turn within for the answers to life’s questions, which are where powerful and life-changing answers reside.

What will I find if I choose a full year of wordless observation of life and the living?  What might happen within my heart and soul if I am not required to verbalize my experience?  Will my life experience be diminished or enhanced if I am unable to label them with a combination of A-Z letters?  What will happen to my feelings and my human emotions?  Emotions often inspire, or require, a litany of words to maintain their strength. Will human emotion diminish in the absence of the word?  Will I be able to hold on to anger if I am not permitted to verbalize my frustration to others? Or will I just LET GO of those experiences that are exacerbated through giving them value through words?

A blind man learns to listen with heightened acuity in the absence of his sight.  A deaf woman learns to watch with keen attention in the absence of hearing.  I wonder.  How will food taste if meals are held in silence rather than hastily inhaled during a chat-fest social occasion?  At the close of the 365th day in the absence of words, will there be a heightened reverence for the words I will first utter?

I will likely choose to live a full year in silence.  Most likely, it will not be this coming year as I am releasing another GOGI book called “How To GOGI” and this book needs my strong voice so it will find it’s way into the hearts and minds of men, women, and children who wish to learn the simple tools to aid them in their efforts to make positive decisions in their lives.

I wonder if anyone in Starbucks has observed my silence. Or am I the invisible the lady in the corner occasionally looking up at the duos and trios huddled over tiny tables?  It seems to me the consumers filling the seats in the coffee shop struggle for connection, struggle to be heard, to be understood, loved and appreciated.  Could they comprehend the concept that their words are actually the very reason their goal remains out of reach?  What might happen if they all chose to be silent, a giant flash mob of silence across our country for a few minutes.  Would the window of opportunity remain open enough for them to actually feel connected in a more powerful, wordless way?

I am coming to appreciate the underutilized power found in empty space; the void.  The void is found in the absence of the spoken word.  It seems as if within the emptiness, the void, in the absence of words, there is ample space for creation to occur.  It is within the void of word that we can engage in the creation of a meaningful connection, of lasting change, of the underutilized potential of the human mind.

Oftentimes we rush to fill the void with words. That is why I wonder what may happen if filling the void with words is not an option for a full year.  I am likely to choose a year of silence in the near future.  Until then, I will begin to practice.  Maybe it is a good time to speak a little less, maybe choose my words more carefully. Maybe it is a good time for our entire nation to speak a little less and listen a little more.

WHAT IF we slowed down the pace of our commentary?  WHAT IF we didn’t rush to fill the silence with hastily chosen words?  WHAT IF we listened for a deeper communication?  Maybe, just maybe, it is within the void, in the absence of words, we find the kind of life that defies all verbal explanation.  Could it be that silence says it all?

The GOGI Way

After answering a barrage of questions at recent prison workshops, I decided to add an introduction chapter to the next GOGI book I am writing.  The contents below make up the contents of that chapter….

Getting Out by Going In (GOGI) is the name for a nonprofit, volunteer-driven group of citizens who believe that humans can, and do, make positive decisions when their desire for change is combined with positive decision making tools. But Getting Out by Going In is not just an organization. Getting Out by Going In is also something you can do; turning inward for your answers and getting out of your old prisons.

The Unlimited Power of the Human Mind

At its very core, when Getting Out by Going In (GOGI) is in action, it acknowledges and supports the unlimited power of the human mind to change, to grow, and to create opportunities as well as create obstacles. GOGI, as an organization, is dedicated and committed to teaching simple tools that help a majority of individuals to make better decisions. That is what GOGI does; helping anyone, anywhere make better decisions through use of the Twelve Tools of GOGI.

As much as GOGI is a set of twelve simple tools for positive decision making, GOGI is also a perspective and very much a way to look at your life. The GOGI Way is one which has the ability to empower you to Getting Out of old behavior by Going In for the solutions. GOGI believes that if you take your focus off the problems around you and focus you efforts to fixing the problems within you, you will magically realize there are fewer external problems. By turning your focus inward, you will also identify simple solutions to those seemingly out-of-control problems which once kept you up at night or caused worry during the day.

The GOGI Way empowers you; it creates an opportunity for you to experience freedom, regardless of where you awake each morning. The GOGI perspective is about seeing the world with the knowledge that you can always make a positive decision, even in the most negative of circumstances.

What IS The GOGI Way?

This idea of “The GOGI Way” has people confused. They question if GOGI is a “program” or a “religion” or a twelve step or a club of some sort. GOGI is none of those things. Rather, GOGI is a way of seeing the world in which you live. Just like there can be negative people who go to your church, there can be positive people who go to your church. GOGI helps negative people be more positive, irrespective of their church affiliation. Just like there can be people who succeed in programs and others who fail programs again and again, people who learn the GOGI tools seem to do a better job in their programs. Just like there can be anxious people and relaxed people, GOGI is helpful in getting people to relax.

GOGI is a way of looking at life which helps anyone be better at anything they choose to do. GOGI is similar to, and is consistent with, core human values which are at the foundation of all religions and efforts aiding in the improvement of the human condition. The simple tools taught by GOGI are intended to permit you to do your religion more fully, excel more completely in your programs, and positively unite members of your clubs or organization with a simple language to promote increased levels of positive decision making. GOGI is for anyone, anytime, anyplace, at any age.

WHAT IF The GOGI Way was taught to kids?

If taught to our school children, we are certain there would be more relaxed, positive, and productive citizens as these simple tools are the foundation of positively functioning in society. If each and every child was taught LET GO, FORGIVE, CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY, there would be less dropouts and childhood drug use. If each child was taught BOSS OF MY BRAIN, BELLY BREATHING and FIVE SECOND LIGHTSWITCH, we would have an increased number of children smiling as they sat in overcrowded classrooms. If each child was taught POSITIVE THOUGHTS, POSITIVE WORDS and POSITIVE ACTIONS we would have less bullying of our school children. If we empowered our youngsters with WHAT IF, REALITY CHECK and ULTIMATE FREEDOM, it is likely we would be turning our prisons into colleges and universities because we would be reducing our inmate population so drastically.

It is our belief at GOGI that simple tools for positive decision making are not to be withheld from anyone for any reason. All humans could have the ability to learn simple tools for positive decision making. That is what the organization Getting Out by Going In has set out to do; provide every living human being with the Twelve Tools of GOGI to increase their ability to make positive decisions. We began our work with the incarcerated men, women and children in the United States of America and we are expanding to include every man, woman and child before they create the prison which limits their life experience.

It is said that people who follow The GOGI Way seem to look happier, seem to have a glow about them and that they exude a happiness which comes from within. That is true. Happiness on the inside eventually finds its way outward. GOGI helps people be better people and the internal happiness this creates is inescapable. GOGI is not about polishing the outside, but, rather, empowering the individual to do a reconstruction project from the inside out. This internal happiness is true and right, and is not limited to a select group of individuals. You, too, can include GOGI into your daily life and being to reap the benefits of living your life The GOGI Way.

Can Something So Simple Really Work?

It’s curious to me that something as simple as a set of positive decision making tools can make such a profound difference in the lives of millions of individuals, but that is the fact. The GOGI Way is value added to your life, a way which values life and living and understands that much of your life experience is created within your mind. Through your use of the Twelve Tools of GOGI, you may find the ability to change your world, from the inside out. The best part of all of it is that The GOGI Way is just the way you need it to be to fortify you to become more than you could possibly imagine.

Volunteerism: A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

Forget the overcrowded waiting room of the family physician, the most powerful anti-depressant may be found right beyond your own back door.

Life is Unfair and Uncertain

Life rarely reveals itself as consistent with our goals, dreams, or expectations. For most of us, there is a fork in the road which we feel powerless to avoid. For me, it was the telephone call I received after placing the final Christmas ornament on the tree. My husband would not be coming home for Christmas. This was not because he could not come home; it was because he was choosing no to come home so he might follow his heart and start a new life with a new woman.

With that call I realized my toddler daughter, in her fluffy pink footie PJ’s, and I would be spending the first of many Christmas holidays alone.

The Not-So-Perfect Picture

The shock of that news still reverberates through my life.  What had I done wrong? What signs of discontent did I miss? His meals were always cooked. His laundry? Done. His daughter was always greeting him at the door with open arms, and his bed was always warm.

What, I asked, was so wrong with our life? Depression can creep up on you like sunburn after a long day at the beach, or it can hit you like a bolt of lightning which has no mercy on any living cell in your body. Mine was the latter.

For nearly a decade after my husband’s overnight departure from my life, I struggled with the poverty which came from having focused on being a good wife and a mother; both jobs which didn’t offer a paycheck. Torn between knowing I wanted to be with my daughter to feed her mind and soul with good fuel and needing to pay the $60.00 electric bill, my depression ran deep.

What’s more, I didn’t have a marketable or a powerful resume of employment successes. Yes, I had graduated from college, but I would need to start at the bottom, at a minimum wage job paying $8.00 as a store cashier, or something. The biggest downside to entry-level work, I quickly realized, was the negative cash flow it would create. The local babysitter in the building was charging $7.00 an hour. Coupled with travel time and taxes, I would be in the red about $3.00 per hour if I went to work.

The Struggle to Make Ends Meet

Fast forward through sleepless nights and renting out bedrooms to pay the rent for the better part of a decade which was marked by debilitating depression and a clenched jaw, in my late 30’s I was becoming somewhat of a positive example to others who struggled with single parenthood. More often than not, I could give some sound advice on how to navigate through the ex’s most current wife, or the inconveniences of renting out bedroom #2 in a 2 bedroom apartment, or the resourcefulness of buying whole milk and mixing it with water to make my own version of skim milk at ½ the price.

I found a pamphlet posted on a community board while I was searching for any form of possible employment. The United Way offered a form of brief therapy for those struggling with loss or confusion. I was, undoubtedly both lost and confused. Their sliding scale rates determined that my 50 minute weekly sessions would cost me $5.00, and even that was a bit of a stretch for my nonexistent budget.

The value of the therapy sessions was felt immediately and the long-term benefits remain. The intern/therapist tasked with making my world livable suggested I explore continuing my education, that school loans might make it possible for me to gain an education which could offer some career options.

“Go back to school? At MY age?” I asked.

The Oldest Student

When I first walked into the classroom filled with eager faces, the students all grew silent and turned toward me. It was only later that I realized they assumed I was the professor, not a fellow student. Yes, I was, by far, the oldest student. And Psychology is not exactly the most career-direct degree. In fact, when I chose psychology it was with little understanding of any career options which might emerge once the Master’s Degree certificate was in hand.

All I knew was that I was getting pretty good at guerrilla warfare against the challenges of single parenthood and deadbeat daddies and my experience oftentimes helped others not feel so badly about their situation. This, in a weird way, helped lift my depression, if only slightly.

Psychology became the route I choose. Pepperdine University School of Education and Psychology became the institution of choice because it was close to my home, which meant less babysitting expenses. FAFSA loans secured, I turned over my mind and my money hoping that an institution of higher learning might help alleviate the heavy cloud hovering over my every move.

Extra Credit Prison Tour

It was an optional classroom activity offered by Professor Laurie Schollkopf, the university’s resident Drug and Alcohol Treatment professor that changed my life. The classroom of 30+ students was invited to tour the Federal Corrections Institution at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California.

The timing of the tour was perfect, as all my activities were navigated around my daughter’s pick up and drop off schedule. My daughter would still be in school and I had sufficient time to complete the tour and pick her up without worrying about who would get her or how to pay for the babysitter.

I signed up.

No Hostage is Rescued

The first time visiting a prison is jarring, even for the most logically minded individual who knows they will be “released” at the end of the tour. Maybe the most jarring part is that one bold-face line on the release form which states that in the event that you are taken hostage there will be no effort to trade your life for the release of an inmate. Basically, if you are taken hostage, you are on your own.

I signed on the dotted line and was patted down, wanded with a metal detector, and walked shoeless through the even-bigger metal detector. After the heavy doors slammed and the reverberation silenced throughout my body, what happened next could only be described as my very own little miracle.

Our tour group of students was led out onto the “yard,” which is the open space between housing structures containing thousands of men who had broken the laws sufficiently to land them as residents of the taxpayer-funded block buildings. When my eyes lifted from the concrete slab flooring onto the yard, it was as if the cloud was lifted and I felt an odd sense of comfort.

The prison walls and the men walking from one side of the yard to the next resembled how I felt inside. I, too, was trapped, in prison, and struggling in a quicksand of complications from which I could not find freedom.

Finding Freedom Inside Prison

That day was the first day I remember a genuine smile coming from deep within my heart and soul. I didn’t know what my career would be, but I knew I would be working with prisoners. They were, after all, a walking and talking emanation of my most inner feelings. We were both in prison. My prison was in my mind; their prison was one of the physical body. I wanted to help them find an internal freedom for which I had struggled for more than a decade. I had a hunch, that in being of service to them, that I, too, might find some peace in my life.

This year marks the culmination of a decade of volunteer service to the 2.3 million men, women and children in our nation who have abdicated the right to their physical freedom through their unlawful acts or their debilitating addiction or depression.

In total, since that first tour of a Federal Prison, I have unwaveringly volunteered more than 40 hours each week to the incarcerated individuals in prisons and jails, accepting a standard of living which most people may find embarrassing.

A Most Powerful Anti-Depressant

The most proven anti-depressant is that of being of service.  Service, in all its wide variety of forms, is the only guaranteed anti-depressant on the market today. In fact, living a life service has been the one remedy which not only lifted the cloud from my life, but has proven to provide a light at the end of the tunnel in the lives of the incarcerated. Through my service to those in prison I have, oddly, discovered my own internal freedom.

The Sweetest Pill

Volunteerism is undoubtedly the single most powerful anti-depressant available to any living human being, even those who feel they are confined to a prison from which they cannot escape. Signing up to volunteer and then putting your heart and soul into the service of others is the sweetest of life’s pills.

For those who volunteer at Getting Out by Going In, the organization I founded to empower inmates with the courage and tools to self-correct, the joy in the face of a mother who can be released from prison on a drug related offence and return to her children as a sober and sane presence in their lives makes all the sacrifices of volunteerism worth its weight in gold.

Will I Be Missed?

Earlier today photographer Amir Ali took pictures of me for materials needed to promote Getting Out by Going In as the emerging leader in providing self-corrective education for our nation’s incarcerated men, women and children. As I sat at my computer reviewing hundreds of headshots, I took a long look at the image of the woman on the screen. Rather than focus on which hair was out of place, or the telltale signs of aging around the corners of my eyes, I tried to put myself in a place one hundred years from now, as a distant relative who might stumble across my picture while researching their family lineage. I wondered what they would think about the image they saw. Would the photograph be so outdated that the viewer couldn’t see the depth of my soul or the clothing I spent so much time choosing? One hundred years from now, will the fashion be as drastically different then as it is from what my ancestors wore in 1911?

When I look at photographs, even those from twenty years ago, I spend less time looking at the individual’s face and more time musing on how goofy and awkward they appear. Their hair always looks awful and their clothing looks uncomfortable. Is that the reaction my image might conjure up in the mind of a viewer twenty years from now? Is that what will happen with your own photograph; the picture of yourself you hope will reveal the best image of you?

Each of us hopes to be remembered when it is our time to leave this earth, as if being remembered provides a link for us to linger on earth just a moment or two longer. In the big scheme of things, however, most of us get forgotten within a generation. Your grandchildren, if you have them, are likely to know very little about you and their children may know even less. Ask yourself, what do you know about your great grandfather? Which ancestor was the first to travel to America? Before that, who were your people and from where did they come? Do you know anything significant about their lives? Do you even recall the details of their struggles? Does anyone remember anything more than the general historical brush strokes defining the five or six decades they walked the earth?

The image on the computer screen before me is one of a woman in the year 2011. I see an image of a woman who has faced struggles beyond her ability and yet, somehow, she has overcome them. Will the viewer see that in my eyes? Will they know of my frustrations, my struggles, and the injustices I faced? Will they even wonder what my life was like, what I chose to do on a Saturday morning, or how great my heartbreaks have been along the way? Will they understand the poverty from which I suffered? The education I struggled so hard to obtain? The school loans which will weigh me down for another 25 years? Will anyone see that in the image?

It is inevitable that we all die. It is also inevitable that future generations believe they are so much more advanced than those previous. It is inevitable that our photographs become nothing more than something to laugh at and clothing to criticize. As we become erased from the world’s awareness within 50 years of our passing, what, then, is the importance of our life? Will it matter what car we drive? What home we call ours? The clothes we wear? Will it even matter where we awoke each morning? Will our affiliations and homeboys and neighborhood truly miss us? Who will mourn our absence? Will anyone visit our gravesite year after year?

WHAT IF the finest life we can live is when we focus all our attention on being of service to our immediate environment? WHAT IF our every day efforts were turned toward making wherever we are just a little more peaceful? A little more tidy? A little more friendly? WHAT IF our every day was spent in a little more prayer? Just one more minute of meditation? WHAT IF we sat up straight and walked tall with the knowledge that our life is occurring this very second, not tomorrow and not when we gain our “freedom.”
When I watched my father’s body shrink to the cancer consuming his healthy cells, I was a 24/7 witness to the slipping away of the  unimportant. The ability to drive his car, for example. When that became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When moving about hi s home with freedom and autonomy became impossible, he reluctantly LET GO. When sitting up in the bed became a multi-person task, he struggled but then LET GO. And toward the end, when mint chocolate chip ice-cream spoon-fed to him no longer tasted good, he LET GO of that, too. At the very end, it was only those seated by his side that mattered and, of that he had no choice but to LET GO. One by one he LET GO of all the things he had held so tightly. In those final moments I believe he came to understand that all he would be taking with him was what he created inside his head and his heart. Everything to which he had a tight grip for so many years was being left behind.

A realization we eventually face is that life goes on and memories of loved ones fade until they disappear with future generations.

Yesterday a family member asked, “When was this picture of Dad taken?”

“2008,” I replied, in full knowledge that in fifty short years no one will even know that the image to which he referred was that of my father.

Will I be missed when it is my turn to LET GO? We are all so busy with “things” we cannot take with us that it appears as if the only thing which is missing is the choice to be present in living each moment to the fullest. We are so busy trying to make our mark, gain our freedom, change the system, impress our families, reunite with loved ones, do good in the neighborhood, seek revenge, get an education, get a good job, and be the boss. We are so busy that we miss the point.

WHAT IF all these things are a distraction from the truth; that none of it matters more than how we respect and embrace this very moment of our life? WHAT IF we will not be remembered in fifty years and that is the just way it is supposed to be? WHAT IF it is not about our legacy as much as it is our willingness to be present with our current environment?

WHAT IF we stop the chatter in our brain just long enough to see the peace we can create in this exact moment? WHAT IF our mind was still enough to hear the sounds which make up our surroundings? Would we hear the laughter coming from someone in joy? Could we hear the cry of another in need? WHAT IF all the trappings of leaving a grand legacy or grabbing the most out of life or fighting for our “freedom” for twenty years is exactly what robs us of our opportunity for inner peace?

Sometimes we are so busy planning for the future that we miss the point of the entire exercise of being human. To experience life with the absence of struggle, we must slow down and find the inner peace which only comes through contributing positively to the life of the individual right next to us. When we place our attention to being an example of integrity, peace, calm demeanor, helpfulness, as well as understanding and support, then we are helping to guide the way of those with whom we come into contact.

Will you be missed when you are gone? The better question is who misses the best of us when we are not present? And, what might happen if we really paid attention to the life unfolding right under our noses? Whose life can we make just a little bit easier today through our POSITIVE THOUGHTS? Whose life can we impact with a POSITIVE WORD? What POSITIVE ACTION can we choose which might serve as an example for others to follow?

I suspect it is not so important to concern ourselves with thinking about family going out of their way to visit, or society making it easy for someone to get back on their feet. Those are thought- consuming distractions to the single most important aspect of life; when you are not being of service then the best part of you is being missed. When you are blinded by the illusion of importance of certificates or groups or politics or legal paperwork it is then that you miss the point. Ask yourself, of the people right next to you, how many lives have you made better by a simple gesture, an act of kindness? With whom did you share something without requesting something in return? Was the best part of you missed today?

In one hundred years I will be forgotten. You, too, will be forgotten. And all your friends will be forgotten. I promise you one thing; you will be missed about as much as you miss your great grandmother. But, you do not need to be missed in your life right now. When you choose to be present, the very best part of your life will not be missed by anyone.

No matter how impossible it may appear at the moment, each one of us can choose to be present in the lives of every living thing with which we come into contact. If we are not making that choice, then we are missing our finest opportunity.

As I close the computer file with the images of a woman I recognize as myself, I am reminded that with every moment I am not focusing on the present, I am missed. The fact is; images fade and lives end. The world continues to turn with an entirely new crop of humans who, with each and every generation, struggle to make their mark, all the while missing the point.

Being missed is what happens when we do not pay attention to the subtle details of our everyday life. What matters most in all our lives is not the great works we do, or the great wealth or power we accumulate, or the physical freedom for which we strive. What matters most is how keen our eye is focused on identifying and assisting those in need; those who suffer right next to us.

We are missed when we are not making our immediate surroundings more peaceful, pleasant, supportive and positive for those who find themselves in our presence. When we practice being present to those things within five feet of our reach, it is only then that our legacy is experienced in real time. Rather than ask, “will I be missed?” we can ask ourselves, “what part of life am I missing?”

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