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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Drawing the Short Straw

I haven't posted on the site in awhile. Not for lack of material, but because of travel and web connectivity. Sometimes life just gets in the way of my writing.

I've wanted to write this piece for quite some time. It's about an observation that I have made. I find it absolutely fascinating. But please read it all the way through before arriving at any conclusions.

The single greatest asset, skill, that I have acquired is my ability to listen and evaluate precisely what someone is trying to say to me. While I have always had some skill in this area, listening was often only connected to my old line of work. And I must admit, I did far too much talking to be an effective listener. Effective listening occurs when you devote all of your energy to hearing, evaluating as you listen to what you have just been told and why. I have made an enormous leap in this arena. And effective listening brings about fatigue; far more so than talking.

For the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work with several men from prison. That these men have committed various serious crimes goes without saying. That virtually all of those crimes involved alcohol and drugs is by no means- earth shattering either.

It was during the course of last year that I made a startling observation.

But please allow me to set the table appropriately. Many of these men are fairly rational and some are quite intelligent. They vary in age and some have college degrees. I cannot claim the intellectual high ground here and even if I attempted that feat, it would be flawed and of dubious value to the point I am about to make anyway.

What distinguishes me from my prison counterparts? Luck.

Huh? You see, most of these men drew the short straw. They were not born to Ward and June Cleaver. They were not born into loving households where both parents loved each other and stayed together through thick and thin. Most of these men came from all kinds of abusive situations. Single parent families. Abandonment. Mothers, fathers checked out on drugs and alcohol. Verbal abuse and shame. Some were physically abused. Others were sexually abused. And the extent of this abuse did not occur here and there during a few petty arguments. It wasn't limited to a an isolated scolding or a spanking. It was pretty much a daily fixture in their lives.

In fact, a few of the men that I work with thought that abusive and dysfunctional behavior was not only normal or perhaps marginally acceptable, but that they engaged in the same practices with their own children. They establish faulty and unconscious belief systems that they accept as true based on the only experience that they have- that which they learned as children at home.

Some of them think striking their children or shaming them is appropriate discipline. And thus they continue to pass along the same faulty belief systems.

As simple as that sounds, that is hardly rocket science either. Nor is it the revelation that I want to discuss.

Now while I am far from perfect, I must admit that the straw I drew was longer than those of the men I have been working with. I was luckier than they were.

Now you'd think that by the time these men went to prison, it might occur to them that society was sending them a message. Your conduct is unacceptable. You must change the way you live your life. That message sounds pretty simple and accompanied by a jail cell you'd think they would get that memo. In fact, you might presume they might even be a little humble.

Not so. Not by a long shot. In fact, once they exit prison they revert to the only thing they know. Many of those that I try to help actually criticize my actions or blame me for their failings. Now I understand that type of victim thinking but what I marvel at is their inability to examine and change those faulty belief systems that were installed in them.

It's not that they are stupid. They simply don't know anything else. They have never been shown love or kindness, tolerance or understanding. They distrust virtually everyone.

I don't get angry with that because I understand it. But just how do you convince someone that they have an operating system that doesn't work anymore?

I'm not sure you can.

They have cognitive change classes in prison but these guys were imprinted with some very faulty belief systems and they cling to them for survival. They may survive with those beliefs but they cannot thrive. If they cannot grasp the enormity of those faulty belief systems they cling to.. they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes that landed them in prison in the first place.

Remember that flashy thingy they used to erase peoples' memories in the movie, "Men in Black?" I need that thing desperately.

Here's the good news. Cognitive change is in fact... the answer. The faulty belief systems of the men and women in prison are the direct result of the poor parenting that they received as children. Exceptions to this rule are rare. It is as simple as that. They drew the short straw. I get it.

So how do we convince these people that they are as potentially good and useful as anyone? How do we convince them to eliminate those faulty beliefs and install a new and updated operating system and get rid of that Commodore 64 system they are using? How do we eliminate ego and do this without diminishing them or claiming that we are intellectually superior?

That is the conundrum. But I'll tell you what. If I ever figure out how to do that, I am gonna set the prison system on it's ear. I am gonna walk thru that gate with a handful of straws that are about 3 feet long and say, "It's time to redraw, boys and girls."

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