By Lon Whittaker
There is an outburst of passion which is called “righteous indignation” and it appears to be righteous, but looked at from a higher conception of conduct it is seen to be not righteous. There is a certain nobility about indignation at wrong or injustice, and is certainly far higher than indifference, but here is a loftier nobility still, by which it is seen that indignation is never necessary and, where love and gentleness take its place, they overcome the wrong much more effectively. A person that is apparently wronged requires our pity, but he one who wrongs requires still more our Compassion, for he is ignorantly laying up for himself a store of suffering: he must reap the wrong he is sowing. ~ James Allen, Book of Meditations for Every Day of the Year (1915)
My cellmate is someone who makes it very easy to dislike him.
Since I have been in my cell it has been an endless tirade of discriminatory rants and anti-government conspiracy theories in which everyone is out to get him. It wasn’t that he was given longer than the life expectancy of a human for his third incarceration for a lifelong tendency of predatory behaviors towards children, but that he refused to see that what he had done was morally wrong.
He would justify his actions in a way that would make me feel as though roaches were crawling under my skin.
I showed a great deal of patience when I was told that I had to move into the cell with him. He took my constant concessions as a lack of intelligence or weakness perhaps. Finally, one day I stopped him and explained to him exactly what he was trying to do by attempting to buy me things and coax pity out of me. He began to tell the correctional officers that I was poisoning him and stealing silly things like his razors and pens from him. The main sergeant on my unity assured me that this was usual behavior for him and that I need not worry because nobody believed him and I should just make the best out of the situation.
However, as he complained more and more to the officers, more and more people heard him and they began to tease me about the things he was saying. They would jokingly call me a murderer and say that he was beating me up.
I have no doubt that everything was just in good fun but I have 116 people on my unit and if just 10% of them give me a hard time once a day it quickly adds up. Most people would ask me how I was able to put up with him and even the officers said they would not deal with it.
My pride began to get in the way and I began to feel smaller and smaller. It is there that I found my righteous indignation.
I began to ignore my cellmate and I stopped getting him up for meals, I stopped getting his laundry when he was gone to the library and I stopped helping him fill out his commissary sheet. There were many petty things I did to make his life less comfortable.
This began to have an effect on my soul.
As I showed more and more dislike for him and his attitude towards me, I began to hate myself more and more for compromising my values. This showed itself in all of my relationships. I began to question my whole belief system and I felt like a fake. The more I hated him, the more I hated myself; I quickly became caught up in one of life’s many vicious circles.
I knew I had to find a way to forgive him but day after day—hour after hour—he fed me the righteous indignation to continue to hate him.
I found I had to step back and look at the situation as though I had no feelings invested in it before I could truly understand the situation. Intelligence is described as the ability to reason and make sense of the problems and situations around you. And that ability is directly related to how many objective steps we are able to remove ourselves from the situation.
The number 12 is an arbitrary number until you step back and see that its factors are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12; it is the sixth even number and its square is 144. Through this level of objectiveness, long division and multiplication become manageable without a calculator.
I found I had to step back to forgive my cellmate.
Moreover, as I stepped back I saw a man who had travelled the world and been on every continent, now sentenced to spend the last half of his life in an 8’ x 12’ cell. I saw a father missing his children’s birthdays, weddings and funerals. I saw a troubled person who knew right from wrong his whole life and was haunted by at least the consequences of his actions.
I saw a man with nothing but demons of his life to hold him as he went to sleep at night praying this night would be the last night in a life that has already gone on for too long.
At this distance, I was able to see myself in him and him in me. At what point in a life sentence would I give in to the anger trying to flood my heart and attack those around me? At what point would I see young men come into my cell months before they go home with their families and lives waiting for them before I became bitter? At this distance, I see why he is the way he is, I understand the anger that in his veins keeping him alive.
It can be so easy to see or hear of a terrible act of violence, betrayal or extreme behavior and condemn the person for their deeds. Maybe even rightfully so. However, when we take away judgment from society, our families, ourselves, and we wash away the same and guilt we would feel committing these acts, we can usually find extreme cases in which we would violate even our most cherished values and morals.
It is at this distance of objective observance that we are able to find love and forgiveness for those guilty of the most terrible of things.
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 by The Human Kindness Foundation and Prison Yoga Project.
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Editor: Marcee Murray King