Granted access to a maximum-security prison I met men capable of unspeakable violence. They were serving long sentences for crimes including, murder – armed robbery – violent assault. Dreams of freedom evaporate over decades as prison culture and everyday violence cause men to grow brittle.
I was prepared with two questions.
They answered my first question easily. “What is your biggest regret?”
While free men sleep the imprisoned lie awake night after night watching regrets slow-dance with the shadows cast on concrete walls.
They spoke of victims or families devastated by their actions. Angry decisions and selfish impulses resulting in tragedy, heartbreak and loss. The honest among them admitted gambling freedom for short-term gain paid meager dividends and caused soul crushing regret.
My second question challenged the men. “What is your deepest fear?”
Acknowledging fear can put men at risk and tends to be a taboo topic among convicts. Feeling fear is a valuable asset, showing fear a liability. Once they dropped low and truly honest I was startled to discover a common theme. With minor variation they all replied –
“My deepest fear is when I die no one will know I existed. I’ve sacrificed my freedom and now I’ll never get a chance to offer what I have to give.”
I find it significant the hunger to contribute had become compelling for these hardened men. Curious, I asked if they were looking to be forgiven? “No, I’m beyond forgiveness,”was the standard response.
Atonement beyond reach and no choice but to accept fate perhaps the cruelest punishment of all is living with the realization their lives will most likely end without ever having given their gift. These men had come to believe the most precious quality of freedom is the freedom to contribute. Is it different for any of us?
As the walls and razor wire faded behind me I felt I’d left the company of wise men.
Wisdom: The ability to learn from life experience and skillfully shape the future for the good of all.
Step from your cell and offer what you hold dear.