Showing posts with label Man's Search for Meaning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Man's Search for Meaning. Show all posts

07 May 2020

One Bite at a Time


Before COVID-19 I was a regular volunteer at the local penitentiary, what with AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project - Sioux Falls, of which I'm president) and the Lifer's Group (of which myself and my husband are the official volunteer supervisors).  This meant I was down there pretty much every week, and sometimes more than once.  Well, that came to an abrupt end.  No visitors, no volunteers allowed, for the foreseeable future.

Yes, I miss them.  And I've been trying to maintain contact.  I have permission to write to them, as long as the letters are non-personal and revolve around AVP or the Lifer's Group, and I do not put my personal address as the return.  And since I can't get in to get any responses they send to the in-prison chapel mailbox, it's a one-way communication.  Kind of frustrating.  But I keep doing it.

I know many people today feel - and say - that social distancing, and COVID-19 lockdowns are like being in jail.  To which, my simple answer is, no, it isn't.  Not at all.

A typical cell at SCI Phoenix, with room for two inmates. Mr. Cosby has not been given a cellmate yet because of security concerns.Not unless you're spending your social distancing in a 6' x 8' concrete room with one wall that's nothing but bars, and inside the bars is a toilet, and against another wall are bunk beds, and you share this space with another inmate.  Who you may or may not like, but you probably have to live with, because if you refuse to share, that's a violation, and could land you in the SHU, which is an even smaller room, with even less stuff in it.  Not only that, there are guards who make sure you stay there up to 23/7, and enforce a wide variety of rules on behavior and speech that have to be read to be believed.

So, no. Staying at home is not at all like being in jail.

But we can learn a lot from inmates. And the first thing is how to do time.  It seems that to a lot of people, six weeks is way too long to have to be stuck indoors.  What if you had to do a year?  (There's a good chance there will be no effective vaccine for at least that long.)  What if you had to do more than that?  How does a person do a long stretch of time?  Well, one of our best inside facilitators, lifer Mighty Mark, said, "Well, it's like eating an elephant.  You take one bite at a time."

Every inmate has to learn - even if they're in for a short sentence - to NOT think too far ahead.  To NOT focus everything on their exit day (if any).  To NOT fume and fret and demand more than they can have.  To accept, in other words, what their situation is.  And then live, as much as humanly possible (and we are all human and frail) in the moment.  Right now.  This bite.  Chew.  Swallow.  Bite.  Repeat.

The big mistake most people do when they find themselves in confinement is to focus all their attention on:
(1) how horrible their situation is.
(2) how unfair the lawyer / judge / sentencing system is.
(3) how are they going to survive the next ____ months / years?
(4) how much the next ____ months / years is wasted time, time they'll never get back, no matter what, and it's just unbearable.
(5) how everyone has abandoned them.
(6) how alone they are.
(7) how useless / hopeless / tasteless everything is.
And on down the a long, long, long negative list of emotions, facts, realities, that are indeed unmistakable and undeniable.

A lot of them - especially the young men - lash out, towards themselves (there's a lot of cuttings, self-harm, and attempted / successful suicides in prison), towards other inmates (a lot of aggressive posturing, attacks, fighting), and even towards the COs (which never ends well for the inmate).  Some of it - even sometimes the self-harm - is showing off, to themselves and others that they've still got what it takes.  That they're the man, and no one better mess with them.  Rising in the pack, hopefully, to Alpha male.  The angriest - and ironically the most wounded - spend the most time in the SHU (solitary confinement), because not only is isolation the punishment for violence, but it's also where they put the suicidal.  (And those who are contagious.)

But, as the young inmates age, many of them come to realize that it doesn't work.  That sinking into violence or despair, aggression or depression, does nothing but make the time go longer and longer and longer...  And they realize (especially the lifers) that they have to make a life, a whole life, where they are.
Including friends.
Including hobbies.
Including goals.
Including education, perhaps even a career.
Including happiness.
BTW, a rip-roarer of book is Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.  Meet Edmund Dantes, sailor, who is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned for life - in solitary confinement - in the Château d'If (which still exists - see photo on the right).  After 8 years of solitary, he's suicidal, but then the Abbé Faria - digging his way out, a poor sense of direction - ends up at Edmund's cell.  Over the next 8 years, Faria teaches Edmund everything - language, culture, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, and science - so well that, after Faria dies and Edmund escapes (read how yourself), Edmund can pass easily as a Count, welcomed everywhere and anywhere.  This is one of the great swashbuckler thrillers, especially as the Count ruthlessly, tirelessly pursues his revenge - but the opening chapters are also a master class in how to survive doing serious time.  And how important education can be.

Another master class is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, an account of his years in the camps and how people survive horror beyond imagination.  He was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the  Holocaust - barely.  (See the Wikipedia summary HERE or, better yet, read it yourself.  I've read it more than once, and gained something new every time.)
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not."
Remember, this is from a man who survived four - yes FOUR - concentration camps.

And there's a story about Viktor Frankl in another book called The Monks of New Skete:  In the Spirit of Happiness.
We had a friend who was in a Nazi concentration camp in the Second World War, a dog breeder, and he was digging in the trenches with the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and Victor Frankl told him:  "This is where you've got to find your happiness - right here in this trench, in this camp." ...  For this is where we're supposed to find our happiness - where we are now, wherever that might happen to be, in all that we do, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  To experience happiness is to experience freedom.  No matter what may happen in life, nothing will be able to touch true happiness. ...  So we have come to understand that happiness is not only in our power to attain, it is our duty to attain.  - The Monks of New Skete, pp. 312-313
A handy list to help:



And a wonderful video of how they do it in prison, Path of Freedom, with Fleet Maull, a former inmate:


    One bite at a time.
    One beat at a time.
    One breath at a time.
    And repeat…


    And now for some blatant self promotion:  My latest story "Brother's Keeper", set in Laskin, is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I share space with many of my fellow SleuthSayers - Robert Lopresti, Elizabeth Zelvin, Michael Bracken, Mark Thielman, Janice Law, and many other fine writers.

    AHM_MayJun2020_400x570

    03 August 2017

    Learning Experiences 101


    by Eve Fisher

    Image result for badlands gun range billboard machine gun sioux fallsI've mentioned in previous blogs a guy named Chuck Brennan, who got rich from payday loan stores.  In 2016, we South Dakotans shut those down by voting for a measure on the amount of interest could be charged. We capped it at 36%, but it's not enough(!), so Chuck picked up all his marbles and went home to Vegas.  He also closed a few other businesses he'd started, including Badlands Pawn, but left behind a radio station (KBAD-fm) and the Badlands Gun Range.

    The Badlands Gun Range advertises frequently - shoot a Glock! shoot an AR-15!  shoot a Magnum! - and they frequently show women firing away, because we femmes are the latest target audience.  The latest billboard is "Shoot a machine gun!"   Which is fine.  A little adventure.  What the hell.  With, hopefully, an instructor, and they need one.

    Because the billboard (would that I could have gotten a stillshot of it) shows this beautiful young slim woman holding a BIG machine gun as if it were a rifle, with the stock up on her shoulder, her face (no wussy safety glasses for her!) down over the sight, cheek right where you'd expect the recoil to be. Now maybe she's an expert, like Charleze Theron's Mad Max stunt double.  On the other hand, I'd say that if she really did fire it from that position, it would take out her shoulder, break her cheekbone (not to mention powder burns all down that side of her face), knock her back into a wall, and spray bullets all around the area in an unpredictable pattern that I would not want to be anywhere near.  But hey, it would be a learning experience.

    Life is full of these learning experiences, especially for those who act first and ask questions later.  If at all.

    Anthony Scaramucci at SALT Conference 2016 (cropped).jpgTake Anthony Scaramucci.  There are a number of lessons here:
    (1) Goombas rarely become White House staff, because while the suit might look sharp, the attitude doesn't.
    (2) Don't give an interview to a reporter on the record and toss around "f" bombs and "c" bombs like they're candy.  BTW, unlike most other news outlets, the The New Yorker (originally marketed by Harold Ross as "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque") actually prints those words in full, so that everyone can savor the crude.  Forever.
    (3) All politicians and their representatives would do well to remember the scene in "Bull Durham" between Crash Davis and the umpire: Use the "c" word, and "You're outta here!"
    (4) Study a little Greek tragedy:  Announcing that you're going to fire everyone is almost always a sign that the Fates are going to take you down.
    From the pony-up and take responsibility department:

    Image result for facebook pictures of people with booze and gunsThere was an inmate in one of the AVP (Alternatives to Violence) workshops I do, of whom I have spoken before, a convicted felon who was infuriated to be back in the pen on parole violation "just because" he'd posted a picture of himself - with a gun in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other - on Facebook.  I've been using his story (anonymously) in every workshop since, emphasizing the following lessons:
    (1) Yes, your parole officer will check all your social media regularly.
    (2) No, there is no right to privacy on social media.
    (3) When it's your own damn fault, perhaps you should quit complaining about it.  Nobody MADE you put that crap on Facebook...
    "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." - Mark Twain
    Maybe.

    Slow learners:

    (1) John Wayne Bobbitt, who, after being "bobbittized" and divorced from Lorena, was arrested for beating up his subsequent girlfriend.
    (2) Anthony Weiner.
    (3) A man I once knew who was paralyzed in a DUI - he was the one drinking - who kept right on drinking.  With a little help from his "friends."  The man with 12 DUIs, who still couldn't see that he had a problem...  The "closet" middle-aged alcoholic (except everyone knew) who couldn't understand why people didn't want to go drinking with them anymore:  "What happened to fun?"
    NOTE:  But really, addicts of any kind shouldn't count.  Addiction is addiction, and those of us who have had many more miles of experience than we'd like with them know that every bottom has a basement, complete with trapdoor...
    Samuel Parris.jpeg
    Samuel Parris
    (4) Richard Nixon.  To the end of his days, Richard Nixon never believed and refused to admit he did anything wrong even in his final speech to the country on his way out the door.  I don't know that he ever even grasped the saying that came out of Watergate:  "it's not the crime, but the cover-up".  I do know that he (and many others) never grasped, as Josh Marshall put it, "But only fools believe that. It's always about the crime. The whole point of the cover-up is that a full revelation of the underlying crime is not survivable."
    (5) Samuel Parris, pastor of Salem Village during the Salem Witch Trials, who comes across not just as self-righteous, but kind of man who'd quarrel with a goat.  During the witchcraft trials, he submitted complaints, served as a witness and testified against many accused, and kept the court records.  All in good order, of course.  He was shocked when, after the trials came to an ignominious end, his parish sued him and wanted him GONE.  And, eventually, got him GONE.

    Finally, there are the unbelievably hard lessons that only some people learn, and I do not know if that makes them fortunate or not:

    Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a wonderful series of sci-fi novellas about the slave worlds of Werel and Yeowe, gathered in her books "Four Ways to Forgiveness" and "The Birthday of the World".

    Perhaps my favorite is "Old Music and the Slave Women", from "The Birthday of the World":  In this, the main character (his nickname is "Old Music") a representative from the Ekumen (LeGuin's equivalent of the Federation), is kidnapped, held prisoner / hostage, and casually, brutally tortured by some young bucks of the Werel equivalent of the Confederacy.  A higher-up named Rayaye eventually makes the young bucks stop; Old Music survives; but the experience of absolute powerlessness in the face of gratuitous cruelty does not leave him.  He spends most of his time after that with the slave women, who sort of accept him.
    "It did him good to know she trusted him.  He needed someone to trust him, for since the cage he could not trust himself.  With Rayaye he was all right; he could still fence; that wasn't the trouble.  It was when he was alone, thinking, sleeping.  He was alone most of the time.  Something in his mind, deep in him, was injured, broken, had not mended, could not be trusted to bear his weight."
    Now contrast that with Psalm 7:8:
    "The Lord shall judge the people:  judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me.
    The first reading is why some of us cannot bear the second.  Corruption, violence and abuse at a certain level, whether early or late in life, are damaging, and the physical is the least of it, the easiest to cure.  The official definition of integrity is "(1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values (incorruptibility); (2) an unimpaired condition (3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided."  People who have lived a nice, normal life can say, casually, "Well, I'd never do that" or "I can't understand how some people can live that way" or "I don't see how someone could ever do a thing like that" or  (from Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath") "Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do."  They know what is right; their integrity is intact.  But integrity can be a luxury in the face of survival.

    Viktor Frankl2.jpg
    Victor Frankl

    Victor Frankl understood this.  Survivor of concentration camps, a noted psychologist and author of the incredible "Man's Search for Meaning," he wrote:
    “On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return.”



    And you don't forget.  Once you know that you are capable of doing just about anything to survive, from collaboration to crime, from denial to participation...  well, that changes the dynamic.  At least internally.  Yes, that time is over, and outside all is right with the world.  But what if things change? The movie "A History of Violence" romanticizes it.  Tom Stall, a/k/a Joey Cusack, caught back up in a mobster's life, kills everyone he has to kill and then goes home.  Dramatic, exciting, and very clean and tidy.  For me - the quote from "Old Music and the Slave Women" is much more appropriate.  And this quote, from our own AVP manual:
    Image result for alternatives to violence project"It is a cliche that 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'  Like all cliches it has a considerable element of truth.  Nonetheless, one of the major purposes of any AVP workshop is to empower the participants, and to teach them to share power in community for the benefit of all.  This is essential because the negative side of the old cliche is as true as the positive:  'Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.'  All people need, for survival, a measure of power over their own lives and over their environment.  It is also true that all people have a certain amount of power within them, which can be repressed and alienated but cannot really be destroyed. If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power, they will use what power they have destructively and with violence."  - AVP Basic Manual
    Abused children; victims of domestic violence; minorities trying to survive endemic, systemic racism; prisoners; a hell of a lot of refugees (including the Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath"); slaves of every era and every kind...  the powerless are everywhere, but generally invisible and unheard, shut away in their own world.

    People with power often have no idea of how much their integrity is tied to their security, nor how much of their security is based on their power, or even how much power they actually have, because it's so deep-seated, innate, fundamental, habitual, historical, visceral, that it's like the air they breathe: it is the way things are.  They're the norm, the way everyone should be. Until someone threatens that power, or even strips it away.  Then you find out the jungle under the skin.

    And that's what AVP is all about:
    "If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power, they will use what power they have destructively and with violence.  It is therefore the business of every AVP workshop to affirm the existence and legitimacy of personal power and to give participants the experience of shared power exercised cooperatively, responsibly, and well."
    Speaking of interesting lessons, I never thought I'd say this, but, thank you, O. J. Simpson, for taking AVP:
    Image result for o j simpson parole hearingDuring his parole hearing, he told the parole board that the Alternatives to Violence course (AVP) he took there has been his most important lesson behind bars, and that he has often mediated conflict among inmates. He stated:  “I took two courses that I guess you guys don’t give too much credit to, it’s called Alternative to Violence. I think it is the most important course anybody in this prison could take because it teaches you how to deal with conflict through conversation.” - (AVP-USA)
    Frankly, I thought he was always just another slow learner, but maybe the lesson's been learned.