The structure of character

The 11 men seated in the circle I entered last Wednesday at Pike County Correctional Facility were not smiling. It was my first day back at the jail after a five-week hiatus, time I had spent revising the material they now held in their hands. The 12-week course, Choosing integrity: The Structure of Character, arose months earlier in that same room after a previous group of inmates convinced me that nothing-but-forgiveness-all-the-time had worn out its welcome.

They were ready for a change and so was I. So I began to write a new lesson for them each week. Their positive response, evidenced through their eagerness to take a hard look at their lives, surprised me. Repeatedly, someone would say, “This is so helpful; I wish somebody had taken the time to teach me this before.” When I finished the 12th chapter and bid them farewell, everyone was smiling.

Among this new group of inmates, no one was smiling. They started in the kitchen at five in the morning, working until 1:00 P.M. preparing meals for other inmates as well as food for the county’s Meals on Wheels program. It was now 4:30 P.M. and they were tired of work and of other reentry program materials they had to complete before I arrived.

I introduced myself and stumbled through a short history of how the program materials they were holding came to be. One man was gazing up at the ceiling seemingly lost to the present moment. Others were looking down, blankly it seemed, at the papers they held. Some watched me, emotionless and unsmiling.

I knew they wanted to be anywhere but in that room. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there either after a long day of bookkeeping at the convenience store where I work part-time.

But we began with me reading the introductory paragraphs of the lesson as they, or at least some of them, followed along. The ceiling-gazer never once looked at the material. After the introduction I turned the reading over to several others. Eventually we arrived at the section, “Taking Stock.”

It includes 15 statements, each followed by these word choices: Strongly Agree, Agree, Not Sure, Disagree and Strongly Disagree. Here are the 15 statements:

  1. I have made more than my share of impulsive decisions that I later regretted making.
  2. I have usually had the self-control I needed to keep me from doing things I later regret.
  3. I stay angry longer than I think is healthy for me.
  4. I have forgiven the people who have done the most harm to me.
  5. I struggle with addictive substances.
  6. I struggle with addictive behaviors.
  7. I have achieved the goals I expected to reach by this point in my life.
  8. I feel hopeful about the future.
  9. I have at least one trusted and reliable friend I can turn to in time of need.
  10. I take responsibility for being where I am today, and I do not blame anyone else.
  11. I have suffered serious trauma in my life and feel I have not really gotten over it.
  12. I wish I had a deeper spiritual life or connection with God.
  13. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes and bad decisions again and again.
  14. I have a strong sense of right and wrong that I think most people would agree with.
  15. I have had an experience in my life that still causes me to feel shame when I think about it.

I gave brief instructions on how to complete this section and then watched as the participants worked their way through the statements. I watched men pause and ponder over a few of the statements, but also quickly circle other responses they did not have to think about. No one was gazing at the ceiling now. Everyone was dedicated to the task at hand.

I knew from the first time I had offered this chapter 17 weeks earlier that this would be the turning point in the lesson. The reason is at once simple and discouraging. It is simple because inmates are rarely offered a formal opportunity to express their feelings and opinions, and they really cherish a chance to do so. It is discouraging for the same reason. Prison staff members do not seem to care what prisoners think and feel. Their jobs involve enforcing rules and maintaining security.

After they finished I invited the participants to each share his response to one of the statements and why he had selected that particular response. Time slowed down as each man opened his life to the group and to me. The frankness of their sharing was disarming. As I had expected, each man’s brief story was one of failure, or of disappointment, or of pain and loss, or of shame.

Occasionally I asked a clarifying question. But mostly I just listened, signaling with my eyes and body language that I was really hearing them. It took 15 minutes for all of them to speak. The time of confession seemed therapeutic, as if—at last—there was a person who was not frowning or barking orders but was willing to listen. And show compassion.

I told the group that many of the things they had just shared would be part of an upcoming lesson—that we would dig down into what had caused failure and, in some cases landed them in jail.

The next part of the lesson offered the participants the opportunity to identify up to three of the statements for which they wished they could have circled a different response and to state the reason why. In other words, what was the outcome or consequence they wish could have been different.

Some identified only one thing; others wrote about three. Again, the sharing was personal and sincere. At the end of the class I asked for their papers, saying that I wanted to read them and get to know each of them better.

Not surprisingly, struggles with addiction and cycles of bad choices and unforgiveness and trauma and shame were everywhere. We have a lot of digging down to do in the coming 11 weeks.

Incidental note: New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who is a frequent guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the PBS Newshour, has recently published The Road to Character. He and I wrote, I suspect, to different audiences. I’ll be interested to see how much of the same thoughts we each include in our books.

2 thoughts on “The structure of character

  1. It’s interesting that once they feel safe and this is not just an exercise to keep them busy but that someone really wants to know what is going on they will really start sharing and show interest. Great blog.

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