Several years ago while teaching an English composition class, I discovered one of my students, the kid who always sat in the front row, took notes during class, and raised his hand with a good answer to every question, had recently been released from prison after serving a seven year sentence for killing his best friend. He confided in me after class one day, while discussing potential topics for an upcoming paper. He was humble and frank in his description of the events. He’d spent a night out drinking with friends, and in a drunken haze, he and his friend got into an argument; a physical fight ensued. His friend didn’t survive.
It was a startling moment, to discover the guy on the front row, the guy that all the other students probably rolled their eyes at for being the classic over achiever, was a convicted felon.
What added to the irony of the situation came a few weeks later, when we had a class discussion regarding voting rights. I’d asked the class if it was ever appropriate to take away someone’s right to vote, for instance felons aren’t allowed to vote. One girl raised her hand and responded, “For most crimes I don’t think voting rights should be taken away, but of course for serious crimes, those people shouldn’t be able to vote, like murderers and people like that.” The girl had no idea that three seats down the row sat one of the people she was condemning.
Fast forward a few years later, I was writing a magazine article about education programs in the Pocatello women’s prison. I had the opportunity to interview three inmates. One of them in particular seemed to have a very compelling story. I didn’t know her crime, but she was serving a life sentence. She had entered prison in her early twenties and was now in her early fifties, having spent her entire adult life in prison.
She entered prison without a high school education. Her parents were vagrants who moved around from city to city, so she quickly fell between the cracks of society and dropped out of middle school. She couldn’t even read. In prison she spent her first several years angry and mean, but over time she came to realize she could choose to be happy, that she had a choice to make something better of herself. She started attending school at the prison, and though learning did not come easy to her, when we spoke, she was one test away from obtaining her GED. She told how along the way she made friends and learned to reach out and show kindness to others. The difficulty of her past was evidenced by a nervous tick and her faltering manner of expressing herself, and my heart hurt when I realized the transformation she had made and hope she held for the future, despite the fact she had little chance of ever leaving the prison system.
After the interview I couldn’t contain my curiosity as to why someone like her was condemned to spend life in prison, so I looked her up on the Internet. I was startled to find that she was a convicted murderer. When she was in her twenties, she got into a relationship with a man who was heavily involved in drugs, a habit she easily fell prey to. While they were passing through Idaho, he contrived a plan to murder an acquaintance in order to steal money and a car. Though she didn’t pull the trigger, she knew about the plan and went along with it, so in the end, they were both caught and given life sentences. She was several months pregnant at the time, so her child was born in prison and immediately sent to foster care and later adopted.
My student, the woman I interviewed in jail, their stories have both stayed in my thoughts for years. I can’t help but think that if fate had dealt me worse cards in my own life, I could just as easily be in their shoes. It took only a few poor choices and hard circumstances to send my two friends down very dark paths. Yet astonishingly, both of them came out on the other side as compassionate, sincere people who had a deep appreciation for all they’d been given and a desire to make their lives better.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about everything I’ve been given in this life: a supportive family, wonderful friends, abundant education, a steady job, a roof over my head, good health, the list goes on and on. It’s really easy for someone like me to sit in my comfortable home and think that all the bad people in this world live behind bars or in some iniquitous den of thieves somewhere. Yet the truth is, I’m guilty of many sins. And as someone who has been given so much, in many ways, my sins may be more grievous than the uneducated, forgotten young girl who falls in with the wrong crowd or the naive young man who makes a dumb decision after a night of drinking.
One of the greatest sins that often goes unnoticed is how we treat our fellowmen in the little, inconspicuous moments of life. How often have I acted huffy and rude with the checkout person at the supermarket because she was moving slowly and inconvenienced my day by taking too long? How many times have I condemned a group of people for supporting a cause or promoting a belief I don’t agree with? How often have I smirked at another’s misfortune because somehow I believe they “deserved” it? How often have I thought myself “better” than someone because of the way they looked?
There are so many ways on a daily basis I fail to treat my fellow men with the kindness and love they deserve. It may not seem like a big thing. However, I can’t get past the first and second commandments — “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart. … This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, though shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
When people make mistakes out of ignorance, desperation, or lack of understanding, I believe the Lord has a very compassionate hand. But for people like me, someone who knows better, who has been given so much — what is my excuse for being judgmental, uncompassionate, or self-righteous? Could this be the beam that Christ speaks of, when he tells us we must remove the beam from our own eye in order to see the mote in our brother’s eye?
After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees of Christ’s time were blinded by their own self-righteousness and sense of moral justice, too busy finding fault with others to see the truth that stood in their midst. I pray that I am not that blind, that I can remove the beam from my own eyes and see where the real sin lies, and that when I think of “murderers and people like that,” I remember that everyone’s journey in this life is different. That doesn’t mean our destination can’t be the same.