*This first appeared in the Good Men Project
Walking down the Famous Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC always has lively displays of animated folk, beautiful and handsome young students, and DC’s diverse working and professional class. However, three years ago that fond experience was interrupted with a horrific scene.
There they were, two young African-American males, no older than 17 years of age sitting on the sidewalk, handcuffed. There they sat with their freedom restricted; and their futures now in the hands of another’s discretion and interpretation of the law.
This unfortunate reality immediately took me back to my 1st year of graduate work at Columbia University NYC, Teachers College. During that time, I was employed at a behavioral assessment center in NJ working with male inmates. These inmates came to the facility in order for the clinical staff to make a determination of whether or not they were “eligible” to complete the remainder of their sentences in halfway houses near their communities of origin. While there, I provided individual counseling, facilitated process groups, and lectured daily around issues related to anger management, family dynamics, spirituality, budgeting, and conflict resolution.
I can remember it vividly. All those imprisoned men. African-American. Latino. White. Smooth talking. Young. Old. Educated and uneducated. Heterosexual, Gay, and Bi-sexual. Religious and non-religious. There they stood in their state issued correctional attire. Their freedom restricted. They were told when to wake up; where they could go; how long they could stay; what was appropriate to say; and how long they could eat, workout, and play. These men had great potential but often recounted stories of loss. Many of them claimed to come from broken families, suffered early abuse, invalidation, and shame. As I sat with them in group, the conversations were always powerful and informative, from the murderer to the thief.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2011. During that time, I supervised a Summer program for potential college students from undeserved wards in DC. Each week we would take these senior high school students to a college campus where they received academic and cultural enrichment to prepare them for college. Upon successful completion, they were awarded a $50,000 college scholarship.
Weeks before this program was to end, I was forced to send a young man home, which disqualified him from receiving the scholarship. This young man was quite talented. He was a comedian and natural orator. Such potential! But all of those positive traits and abilities were overshadowed by his inability to manage his behavior. As a staff we looked the other way despite his many indiscretions. But at last we could no longer tolerate his erratic and inappropriate behavior. We decided to cut all ties. I was anointed with the task of not only advising him of his ejection from the program but of also accompanying him to his dorm and retrieving all of the organization’s property from him. I watched him as he slowly packed his belongings. Once he was done, I asked him if he really understood the severity of what was happening to him. He said no. I advised him of the seriousness of his actions and their implications. I summarized, reflected, and then asked for his thoughts and feelings about his fate. I attempted to process as many of his thoughts and feelings that we could while keeping him contained. I then went into big brother mode. I revealed to him that I knew of his grandiose telling of the many times he had contracted a STD as well as the many young girls he had slept with. I told him that his masculinity was not solidified because of his perceived sexual prowess. I reminded him that masculinity was multi-dimensional and had as its basic attributes: respect, honesty, a level of emotional capacity, and consistency (all of which has been an ongoing lesson for me as well). I admitted to some of my own failings and reminded him that the pursuit of a woman was in fact foolish; and that real connection would never really be an option if he didn’t get control of himself.
He looked at me with a blank stare. He said he understood and would do better. But for some reason I wasn’t really sure he would. As I sat and reflected on this situation I was overcome with sadness. I couldn’t get his face, the faces of those boys handcuffed on the streets of DC, or the inmates in NJ out of my head.
You see, all of those experiences were reminders of my own un-evolved parts. No, I have never killed anyone. Nor have I stolen (at least not since childhood). But I could relate to feeling like all my options were gone. I could relate to feeling angry enough to want others to feel my pain. I have felt invalidated. I have felt invisible. I have felt lost. I have carried hostility for others and myself. My aggression and hostility often has manifested in passive-aggressive ways. I have sabotaged many opportunities and acted in unloving and perhaps “criminal” ways. I have been poor, watching my mother go to school at night and struggle to work full-time just so that my sister and I would have a better future. I know what it is like to stand in line at the grocery store embarrassed to have to pay for our groceries with food stamps and WIC benefits.
What kept me from snapping? Why didn’t I hold up a store or kill someone? Why was I on the right side of the law giving my fellow brothers lectures while they were in captivity? Why am I standing strong despite my mistakes and failings?
As I reflected, I came to realize that there are many men including myself that will never end up physically imprisoned. And yes, many of us may have never experienced the extreme failings that the boys and men I mentioned have experienced.
But may I present to you that despite having your physical freedom, many of you are still journeying through life psychologically and spiritually imprisoned; having yet to reach your full potential! So I ask you today, what internal warfare do you battle that manifests itself in spiritual, psychological, and interpersonal captivity? What un-evolved parts of yourself have kept you from realizing your full potential and creative power? Do you have control of yourself? Or does your body, penis, and emotions control you? How many relationships will you ruin? How many job positions will you lose? How many hasty decisions will you continue to make? How many of those decisions have handcuffed you to a life of mediocrity and depression?
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