By Lon Whittaker
Recently I have made the conscious decision to apply myself to find the measure of my true potential.
How do I not sell myself short but still set my goals to be reasonably attainable? What I found was extremely frustrating. Potential resides upon the line between possible and implausible. It is much less of a destination than it is a journey, something to be strived for but never reached.
Despite his later actions, Oscar Pistorius showed a great deal of human potential when, as a double amputee, he not only made it to the 2012 Olympics on his country’s track and field team, but made it through to the second round. Few of us would have been so rude as to tell him it wasn’t possible, but I doubt very much that most of us would have found it plausible.
The American Heritage Dictionary describes potential as the inherent ability or capacity for growth, development or realization. Human potential is not always obvious though sometimes you must min from deep in our souls, but like our precious stones and metals, this is where we can find our most valuable potential.
If I told you that I lived in a gated community, spending my time around doctors, lawyers and politicians, it would be easy to assume that I was surrounded by the game changers and leaders of our country with little to worry about. If I told you that my gated community was actually a prison and the people I eat, sleep and live around are actually thieves, murders, rapists and drug dealers, you would probably tell me to watch my back.
But I once knelt down and allowed a convicted murderer with consecutive life sentences to get behind me and put me in a choke hold because I had bet him a Little Debbie Snack Cake that I could stay awake for eight seconds. And while I wound up losing that bet, I have never felt worried for my physical safety since my first month in prison.
Admittedly, I find myself hesitant to ask most people why they are locked up for fear I will be unable to not judge them. I learned this lesson after one hard stretch when they put me in a cell with a child molester, guilty of molesting three boys and girls under six years old.
I have never felt such an anger towards anyone before.
I felt like if he so much as coughed that would be enough of an excuse to inflict an excessive amount of trauma upon him with little regard for his well-being or my consequences. As I slowly began talking to him, I found that he possessed few criminal thoughts or behaviors. What I mean by this is that, in my past, I would have had no problem putting a mask on and going to a place of business and stealing whatever money was there. Even now I am uncomfortable with how easy it is for me to be “shady” when I want something from the guards.
My cellmate didn’t think like that.
When I asked him why he never got high, he looked at me and said “Because it’s illegal!” as if that was the most obvious thing. He shows a desire to change, so I now tutor him with math because I believe there is a chance for him to grow.
I have found that there criminals—and then there are people who on that day, during that hour, in that minute, for that split second in time committed a crime and would do anything to take it back.
My favorite days of the week are when I get to work with a guy we call Patches. He killed two people. When I look at him from across a room, he always has a sad look in his eyes before he realizes I am looking at him. As he engages me from that point on he has a smile and a light behind his eyes and a look that tells me he has every intention of outsmarting me. He is so good at telling a story, that I feel like I am right there in the action with him. I think that the events that led him to being here stopped him from maturing, but it happened in the best way possible. He has the eternal optimism of a child—like anything is possible—without the dragged down “life is bullshit” attitude of many adults. Years of being in here have given him the wisdom of a hard lived life of trial and error and strength of character. He would make an invaluable fixture in leadership development in our youth.
Patches is just one of the millions of people who, due to no initial investment in them as they grew up, have been unable to fulfill their potential.
This place is like a meat grinder. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but this meat grinder can churn out some Grade A, if you let it. I feel a great amount of shame for what I have done to hurt people, but I can only pray they find strength in the discomfort I have put them in, as I have found strength in my own self-inflicted adversities in prison.
I find myself if not lucky, then grateful for the life lessons I have learned here.
I could have gotten married and had more children, but I would have never been so hungry for life as I am now. I had to be removed from society to learn how to properly function in it. Somehow all the cruelty and anger made me a calmer and kinder person. I developed an almost physical thirst for knowledge in here. I will always apply for classes, and if I have to wait for one, I will read the text books.
I was 20 when I got my GED at a challenge incarceration program. When I was going to take a sick day instead of the test, a sergeant got in my face and told me, not so quietly, that I could do it. He made me feel confident (and scared) enough to pass. It is realistic to assume I may have never taken the test otherwise. Because of him I have a belief that I can do well in school, and I have never looked back.
Many people need a structured learning environment like I had so that they can thirst for knowledge as well. For many people, the hope of education, honest work and a better life for their families isn’t a reality. Because no one told them they could be better, they never thought to do better.
In here, ignorance is far more prevalent than stupidity. The people in here could have been our doctors, lawyers, politicians—even our garbage men—had the proper investment been made in them. If someone develops trust in you to educate them, and believes that when they do invest their time with you they will be able to use that knowledge to become prosperous in life then, you have given them hope.
In looking at all criminals in here, from the lowest class of felon to murder one, the thing we all had in common was that during the committing of our crimes we had lost hope. Hope that our bills would be paid, hope that we would see our children again, hope that we had a future anyway.
In the darkness of ignorance hope cannot shine, and without that light, fear and desperation flourish.
While stupidity has no cure, the prescription for ignorance is education.
The problem with corrections is that it is a reactive treatment rather than being a proactive cure.
We must learn to correct criminality before it becomes crime.
As we pour more and more money into our prisons and away from our schools as we hope to house our prisoners longer, we forget that behaviors are direct descendants of our thoughts and will. We have a thought and will it into existence. These thoughts can be willed into Hitler’s Germany or a Buddhist life style. Education needs to be more than crunching numbers, testing, and who did what, where and when. When we removed religion from schools, we forgot to replace it with a very important part of religion: ethics.
And while I would never want religion put back in school, being ethical is a learned behavior. Neither saints nor sinners are born; they are created.
The most frustrating thing about prison sentences is the question of how much time should someone be given, what’s fair and who gets to decide? I have never been able to answer those questions. We are in here for having a huge negative impact on people’s lives, and that just doesn’t stop when we are sent to prison.
The people we hurt will always carry the scars of our actions against them. This cannot be denied or downplayed, and every victim of every crime has a right to their own amount of anger, frustration and hatred. But if you truly believe that every child born in America has the potential to be president—everyone has the same opportunities—then we need to be scrambling to create not only great educational systems but better social programs.
Prison is a social problem, and while only criminals can be held responsible for their actions, only society as a whole can be the ray of hope when the shadow of desperation lurks around people’s hearts and minds.
Inevitably there will be those who slip through the cracks, but how can you condemn a father, sister, mother or brother to a 6’ x 12’ room for the rest of his or her life? And if this is the only solution, what can society be doing to insure it doesn’t waste the potential of this killer with three life sentences—my good friend—who’s sitting across from me laughing as we consider if he can call himself a grown-ass man and claim his street creds if he still breaks his cookies in two and dunks them in his milk…like we all did when we were little children with the potential to be president.
Lon Whittaker, as a child, thought his dad was the smartest man alive when he heard him tell his brothers he had invented two new words: please and thank you. Now, he knows he was only a child with a lot to learn. He is learning these life lessons by practicing self-study, yoga, meditation and writing from behind bars in the Wisconsin Correctional System. A member of the prison’s Buddhist group, he is very grateful for books sent to him byThe Human Kindness Foundation and Prison Yoga Project.
*If you are inspired to comment below, The Tattooed Buddha will print and send them to Lon.*
Editor: Marcee Murray King