break free

By Lon Whittaker

During the time between when I wake up in the morning, brush my teeth, use the restroom and wash my face, I have seen four people and have eight reasons to be frustrated.

Whether it be people leaving the restroom without washing their hands, or leaving messes behind after showering or toothpaste in the sink, the frustration grows. This continues while standing in line for breakfast and someone skips by me, or tries to talk to me without having brushed his teeth.

This is added on to a day full of missed please, thank you’s and excuse me’s and leads me to feeling resentful at the end of the day.

I often have been told that I demand an unreasonable amount of performance or perfection from myself, so when dealing and interacting with people, I expect them to meet me halfway. In the past two weekends, three of the books I have read have had talking points about what to do about people and situations that upset me like that.

One author says to show them mercy. I could easily explain to them just how they have insulted me and tell them how to do better, but by offering mercy I (silently) tell them that whether they meant to insult me or not, I am showing them mercy and I won’t fault them or hold a grudge.

In the book The Mind is the Master, James S. Allen went as far as to say one should pity people for the manners unknown to the perceived offenders like this, and look upon them with sympathy. When speaking of sympathy he says, “the world needs more of this divine quality” and “sympathy given can never be wasted.”

Sympathy and pity taste bitter in my mouth when speaking of another human, though this attitude of mine seems almost arrogant to me.

By far, the author to explain it the best was Deborah Adele in TheYamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. She explained that we were at fault when we became slighted by another because we most likely, without consent from the “offender,” have unjustly placed a burden of expectations on them.

We are saying that in order to speak with me, you must use certain words or phrases so I don’t become insulted. Or, regardless of what’s going on in your life right now, I expect you to worry about my wants and needs. She explained that when we trace these feelings of hurt and disappointment back to their origins, they generally stem from very self-centered ideals.

One of the biggest problems I ran into in my daily life was with one of the correctional officers who was my boss at my place of employment, where I was a custodial technician.

Basically, I wiped tables and cleaned bathrooms. It seemed to me the officer had a general idea that all inmates are less intelligent than him—not dumb, but not as smart as he is. When I tried to explain a situation to him or express that I had a need that only he could take care of, whether it was getting chemicals that we locked up or him getting other items for me, he was often quick to interrupt me and tell me what he thought I should need.

This often led to me doing projects twice or having another officer mad at me because I returned to them with something other than what they sent me for.

He had almost a comical way of causing anyone who was working on a project to become flustered and highly inefficient. This also led me to develop massive amounts of resentment towards him; not only did it annoy me on a personal level, but I had been reading several books on how to be a leader and or manager and felt as though he was making a video on how not to lead people.

When I thought about the concept of placing burdens of expectations on people as it pertained to this situation, I realized that it was unfair of me to think that everybody would know how to lead people.

My burden I placed upon him was too heavy and he was unable to hold it. When I lightened the burden on him, I stopped getting as frustrated with him, and I am sure he noticed, so our working relationship got better.

Because I am not giving him as much attitude, he also is more apt to listen to my advice now. Probably the hardest part of that whole situation was that I truly believed this officer meant well and never had malicious intent towards me or any of the other inmates.

As much as this helped me in my daily interactions with people, realistically these things would not effect me in any sort of long-term capacity. At the most, I will only have six more months before I am released from Wisconsin’s prison system. The people who aggravate me around my unit with their blatant lack of please, thanks you’s or excuse me’s truly are unimportant, in the big picture of my life.

Where I was really helped by these teachings was my in relationships with my family and friends who are family.

I had gone through a period where I was building resentments towards them for the shortcomings I perceived in their characters. Before I came back to prison last January, there was a period of time when I thought about not turning myself in.

At the very best, I would have been facing more charges, but I most likely I would have wound up hurting myself—and unintentionally, the public. My family wanted nothing more than to see me safe, so they assured me that I would not feel alone, as I had the first time I came to prison. I was told that they would be writing me and they would make sure they would make it possible for me to call them.

Right after I turned myself in, they were true to their word—but as it always does, life happened. When they were done dealing with my crisis, they went back to hurdling the rest of life’s obstacles.

As holidays passed without cards, birthdays went unacknowledged, letters continually went unanswered and phones were never activated, I became very resentful.

The concept of mercy and not burdening family with expectations helped me see how petty I really was. When I really looked at what I really wanted for my family, it was that they be reasonably happy and that they be reasonably healthy. Everything outside of that was a blessing from them to me, one I now think no one has the right to just expect from their family in the situation I am in.

I never truly doubted my family loved me, but I was putting qualifiers on my unconditional love, which obviously defeats the purpose.

These ideas of mercy and not burdening loved ones so saved me from having the regret of missing an opportunity to tell my loved ones this: They are loved.

I was helped by these ideas in tearing down walls I had made for them, and not creating new ones.

I am sitting in here, thinking that I am here waiting to show my love to my family without qualifications or expectations, and I am left knowing, without a doubt, that they are thinking the same.


Lon WhittakerLon Whittaker, as a child, thought his dad was the smartest man alive. 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 by The Human Kindness Foundation and Prison Yoga Project.

*If you are inspired to comment below, The Tattooed Buddha will print and send them to Lon.*

UPDATE: Lon is no longer serving time in prison, has moved on, and enjoying his life with moving forward.


Photo: Alles Banane/Flickr

Editor: Marcee Murray King