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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stereotypes Can Prevent Acts of Kindness, Even in Prison

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Recently I was scheduled for an appointment with the Health Services Clinic at the Handlon Correctional Facility. When I arrived the waiting room was full so I stood in the hallway until a seat became available. A young White prisoner in his early 20s stood near me waiting in the hallway as well.

It was a busy morning. Several prisoners were waiting to inject their early doses of insulin, others were waiting to see the physician or nurse, and there was a long line of prisoners waiting to have their blood drawn to be sent to the lab for various tests.

As I stood waiting I glanced over at the younger prisoner who was standing near me in the hallway who I will refer to as "Mike." His hair was short and blonde. He was dressed oddly in a set of state blues. He wore his pants pulled up past his naval with his shirt tucked deep into his pants. I silently thought to myself, "He must not realize how funny he looks dressed that way."

As I was having these thoughts Mike looked over at me and said, "Good morning! How are you doing today?" His words evoked the thoughts in me, "OK, I get it now. He's either very new to prison or has some other issues," because being friendly to people you don't know in prison is uncommon. Usually prisoners who don't know each other avoid communicating. The exchange of pleasantries between complete strangers in prison is rare.

Despite my initial observations about Mike I responded saying, "Good. How about you?" His response was, "Great! Hope you have a good day and God bless you." He said it so abruptly it was as if he couldn't wait to convey those words to me. It took me by surprise. I wouldn't allow the kindness of his words go unappreciated though and responded, "God bless you too."

In nearly three decades of incarceration no prisoner has ever said these words before when speaking to me for the first time. The situation prompted me to examine things closer. There was something about it that summoned me to not just dismiss it as some odd encounter.

After a few minutes seating space became available in the waiting room so Mike and I entered the area and sat down. A short time later Mike was called to stand in line to have his blood drawn. As he stood waiting I overheard him ask an officer in the hallway, "How are you doing?" The officer looked at him strangely and responded, "Alright," then abruptly looked away.

Mike then told the officer, "God bless you and I hope you have a good day." The officer looked at Mike with a puzzled look on his face and said, "I don't hear that from prisoners often," and returned to what he was doing writing at his desk.

At this point my thoughts about Mike's earlier behavior were only being reinforced. Or so I thought.

Next Mike began to ask the officer a series of questions about fishing. The officer then asked Mike, "Didn't you go to the hospital recently?" in an effort to change the subject. Mike responded, "Yes. I have been going to the University of Michigan almost every month for the last few years."

I could hear the entire conversation and I was just taking it all in.

Mike proceeded to tell the officer, "I have a brain tumor and I was supposed to die three years ago. I'm not even supposed to plug things into electrical outlets myself because my tumor could burst from the current. That's why I am so happy every day I wake up alive because I could have died anytime within the past few years."

Hearing Mike's words crystallized everything immediately.

"That was the reason I didn't dismiss this situation as some crazy guy just being friendly in prison," I thought to myself. "I was supposed to receive an important lesson today about life and it was through the painful experience of a stranger I didn't even know."

Afterwards Mike went to get his blood drawn. As he was leaving the room where they were doing blood draws we passed each other in the hall and I made a point of telling him, "Take care." He smiled, nodded his head up and down, and said, "You too."

Life offers many opportunities we frequently miss because of distorted stereotypes we unfairly project, flawed perceptions, or an unwillingness to pause and analyze situations before reaching hasty conclusions. And, I believe it occurs more often than we think.

There is a scripture in the Bible that cautions people about how they treat strangers because they never know when they could be entertaining angels. While I am not equating Mike to an angel I interpret that scripture to mean not only may we encounter divine messengers of the Creator during our lifetime, we will also receive important spiritual lessons from strangers.

As we go through life we navigate the daily deluge of competing interests we encounter. We complain about everything going wrong in our lives and rarely take the time to be grateful for the positive things that transpire. We selfishly ignore the gifts life bestows upon us. In so doing we become self-absorbed and cheat ourselves by becoming indifferent to the fullness of life.

Taking things for granted can lead to our self-destruction. It is tantamount to erroneously telling ourselves everything good that occurs in our lives happens because we singularly made it materialize. The reality is that much more transpires in our lives because of our interaction with others, the cycle of life, and the Creator. It doesn't take long to discover that doing things entirely alone independent of everyone around us won't get us very far. We impose serious limitations on ourselves when we do that and set ourselves up for failure.

When we allow ourselves to see the potential in others, open our hearts and minds to the possibilities of goodness, and accept that life is too short to manufacture stereotypes, foster divisions, or ignore the inherent dignity in others we discover the richness of a vibrant world around us beckoning to be explored.

We become receptive to new ideas, information, and knowledge we previously erected barriers against. We grow and nourish our spirits in profound ways and begin to exercise our full potential instead of weighing ourselves down with the negative energies of life that prevent our upward mobility.

It's been a few weeks and I haven't seen Mike again. I may never see him again. What I will do, however, is share his story with others as a lesson for them to learn from, and as a frequent reminder about the importance of appreciating every precious moment of life.

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