Prison is not the place I ever expected to learn anything about God. But I have. The God of Surprises is always evident in my workplace, gently reminding me that every person, no matter how guilty, is a gifted and beloved child of our God.
Among the inmates who turn up in the library are wildly talented artists and writers, musicians and mathematicians. There are chefs who can make magic out of ramen and repairmen who can fix anything. There are remarkable innovators, and some of the most ecologically minded people I know, who recycle everything. As the short story author Curtis Dawkins, himself a prisoner, writes, “It’s the essence of prison ingenuity — that so much can be done with so little.”
Most impressive, however, is the serenity among the men who engage in a program of self-improvement. I am always amazed by the lack of bitterness, among some of those I work with, in response to a major disappointment. Since I am bitter when my newspaper isn’t in my driveway on time — my morning is ruined! — I am often stunned by the purity of their acceptance. Like the inmate whose lawyer told him that if he’d had better representation way back when, he could have been out of prison 10 years ago.
“You could have been free 10 years ago?” I said. “Doesn’t that upset you?”
He shrugged. “I guess I had things to learn still,” he said.
Or the lifer whose bid for release was rejected by the parole board; told that, even after decades of self-help work, he was not ready to rejoin society. In my dealings with him, he is a decent, compassionate person, so I was bitter on his behalf. Surely the board had made a mistake.
“No, they were fair,” he said. “They’re doing their job.”
He will have the chance to go before the board again. He will strive anew to show that he is truly rehabilitated. I watch him submit to the authorities over him, and yet find it in himself to move forward with quiet integrity.
Such a lesson in grace: the grace of acceptance.
Because even though these men are paying some serious debts to society, they are examples of how to work with the concrete reality of what is. They don’t protest. They aren’t resentful of circumstances out of their control. They roll with the punches; they play the hands they’re dealt; they dance, as the old saying goes, with "the ones that brung them." All things that I am not at all good at doing.
Consider my over-reaction to the loss of my earring, which I have worn in the extra hole in my right ear every day since my dad died. My dad’s name was Valentine, and my earring was a small heart enclosed by a slightly bigger one, which is how I pictured my dad still present, still watching out for me. At the end of a long and busy day, I discovered my earring was no longer in my ear. In vain, I searched for it. It could be anywhere I‘d gone that day. My fatalistic brain told me this was a bad sign, an omen of ill things to come. But then an unlikely calm washed over me. It was only an earring. I could accept this. My dad dwells forever in my heart, even if the hole in my ear is empty. I could let it go.
And I suspect this fresh air, this grace of acceptance, came over me because of the examples I have seen up close.
It may seem that I am glorifying people who are incarcerated. And maybe I am. Maybe they acquiesce because they don’t dare to dream, because they have been shot down, figuratively and literally, so many times. There is so much brokenness in prison. But there is also kindness, and brotherly love, and grace, and God. Acceptance, I see, is a function of mindfulness. It is a learned skill, but it reminds us that our God is ever in charge, both in and out of prison.