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What Does Courage Look Like?
Malcolm* didn’t beat around the bush. His shared his statement with the confidence one has when stating that the sky is blue. He said, “Miss Sara, you’re right. I’ve killed someone, and I know that I’m a good person.”
Other heads nodded in agreement, and I sat in disbelief. I was leading the eight-week Compassion Cultivation Training® course, and the participants weren’t my normal audience of business people, health care providers, or entrepreneurs. This time I was teaching inmates at one of California’s maximum security prisons: Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, and Malcolm’s statement caught me by surprise.
During the first class, I shared the background of CCT, and we had decided upon the basic ground rules of class. Then one of the inmates mentioned something about a “bad person.” I couldn’t let that go without addressing it.
I stopped him and shared with the inmates the same thing I share with every other CCT class. I told them that those who developed and teach this class believe that there is no such thing as a “bad person”. We posit that every person is born compassionate. Yes, there are bad behaviors, and we practice separating the person from his or her behavior.
I paused and followed up with, “We believe that every single person deserves compassion.”
As soon as I said it, I felt and saw an immediate effect. Each man sat up straighter and relaxed his shoulders. The energy in the room lifted and felt lighter and warmer. My eyes teared up, and I felt my heart swell. In that very moment, any intimidation I felt about leading a dozen inmates through CCT disappeared.
“You see us as ‘good people’, but society doesn’t see us that way,” said Ty*.
The eight weeks weren’t a picnic by any stretch of the imagination. Because of violence, the yard was on lockdown for a few weeks, which postponed our classes. Plus, the paper-thin walls of our meeting space offered little protection from the constant distractions. We sat through hammering, loud voices, yelling, and even staff members coming in and out (because they had to walk through our space to get to their offices). The inmates weren’t strangers to distractions, so the noise didn’t seem to bother them much. In fact, I’m thankful that they modeled how to roll with the noises, and I soon followed their lead.
What happened during CCT, despite the distractions and interruptions, showed me the immense power of compassion. I watched the men embody compassion as they became engaged listeners. I saw them become vulnerable with each other. I saw them share laughter, regret, and sadness.
Because it’s difficult for me to express what happened over those weeks, here are some of the statements the inmates shared in their post-class evaluations:
I am now able to talk to others without any judgment and also able to listen more without interrupting or give advice unless asked, but just listen.
I am able to put aside others’ faults and know that they are suffering as I am, we are the same in a lot of ways.
Everybody suffers, but everybody deserves to be happy and free from that type of bondage.
It’s not something to be ashamed of, to show compassion and empathy to another human being.
I learned how to deep breathe and to see that everyone needs compassion.
Compassion and prison yards don’t usually mix. As one of the above comments stated, inmates may feel ashamed to offer compassion on the yard, because it can be considered a sign of weakness. When these men agreed to get out from behind their tough masks and offer compassion to themselves and others, they showed true, unequivocal strength and courage.
My experience with the inmates showed me the true power of compassion and reaffirmed my belief that, yes, EVERYONE deserves compassion. Even Malcolm.
*Names changed to protect anonymity.