This week I began exploring compassion cultivation with a second group of men who are described as “fresh out” by the men referred to as “veterans” in our original group. Being a “veteran” simply means they have been a returning citizen for several months. The new men have been out for two weeks.
Transition from prison back into the “free world” is a giant challenge. The men do not want to go back, but they are just beginning to learn some skills needed to negotiate the stresses of life on the outside. “One day at a time” might seem a cliché, but for these men that is a desperate truth. They really have to find better ways to cope with life fast, or they will ruin this chance at freedom.
So how do men learn compassion for self and others fast? We all know it doesn’t work that way. And each week we only have an hour to begin baby steps in this life-long work. We have to trust that if we give them a chance, the men who are ready will continue to develop character and skills to cope with challenges to their character.
Two of the “fresh out” men attended Compassion Cultivation Training classes with Lara Naughton while inside Angola prison. So I asked them to share with the rest of the guys what they could remember learning. One of the guys spoke first with a question he remembered from the training: “How is your heart today?” He told how the men divided into pairs, looked each other in the face, and responded to the question.
As he described the process, the veteran next to him said, “Wait. What?” He was shocked at the idea of two tough men facing each other and speaking in that way of the heart. He couldn’t really believe men in Angola are learning to do that. Another peer made fun of him and called him a “homophobe.” He said, “No it’s not that. In the streets men don’t stare each other in the face unless they are threatening each other.”
The “fresh out” man explained that the class members had in fact had the courage to simply see each other and speak their truth with things like: “My heart is sad today because I haven’t seen my kids in over a year.” I affirmed what he said and told about the first time I did the exercise with a man inside Angola. I had shared how entering the gates made my heart feel a hint of the despair that men on the inside often feel, even though I knew I would be free to leave a few hours later.
Once again, as the compassion cultivation training continued, then men who were ready responded to the question of the day and spoke their truth. They responded with very honest and vulnerable answers to the question of the night: “Who were you? Who are you now? Who are you becoming?” Once again I was amazed that men kept leaping off into the abyss of confessing who they had been in great detail. And once again they tried to find words for who they are and are becoming.
Their sharing is like men finding words they have never spoken for experiences that are brand new in this very moment. They are literally fresh. They are just tasting skills of honesty and truth-telling they might have never tried before. Many of them are attending 12-step recovery meetings each week. They are practicing truths from those meetings for the first time, like: “This is HOW this program works – Honesty, Openness, and Willingness.” In our room too, they are doing the work that can set men free, really free.
Thanks be to God that men who were in prison mentally/emotionally/relationally even before they entered Angola, and then spent years on the inside, are now becoming “fresh” in their experience of inner freedom – “One day at a time.”