Dearest EXPLORE reader,
I knew a guy earlier in my life that was really the life of the party. He was extremely outgoing, the girls loved his charm and confidence, and when he entered the room the lights got a little brighter and the volume was turned up.
He lived in a nice area of Fair Oaks, was a professional at his job, and was extremely well respected. I used to have lunch with him frequently and I would have characterized him as being a very vibrant, intelligent, warm, and wonderful man. He had no kids yet, but they were on his radar with his young wife. By all accounts, he had it all…and everyone around him loved getting to spend time with him.
During a “guy’s trip” with some of his friends one summer, and after way too many cocktails, somebody pulled out a small baggie of cocaine and encouraged him to have some. With his better judgment clouded, he agreed.
Within 3 months he was a full on cocaine addict.
Within 6 months, his wife had left him and he had lost his job.
Within 9 months he had moved on to crack and his home was foreclosed.
Whatever clicked in his brain upon his first sampling of cocaine began a tornado of destruction in his life that started quickly. He instantly became transfixed on getting his next fix of cocaine, and it quickly took its toll on his marriage. As he wasn’t sleeping, his job performance took a nose dive, so the once popular and respected young man at work was quickly fired.
Now homeless and unemployed, my friend lived in his car for a while. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while as he went through this free fall, so sadly I didn’t even know that it was going on. I remember trying to call him, leaving voicemails, but never did get a reply. As he became more and more desperate for money to fund his habit, one evening at approximately midnight he robbed a gas station in San Antonio with a small .38 caliber handgun on some terrible side of town. Nobody was hurt (thank God), but he was picked up a few nights later while he was passed out in backseat of his Infiniti.
I watched on the news as they walked him to the back of the cop car. His hair was overgrown and shaggy, clothes were stained and torn, and he looked exactly like a guy that wouldn’t surprise you to learn that he was an armed robber. The problem was that he wasn’t an armed robber, he was a well-respected, professional young man that I had enjoyed lunch several times. But, I’m sad to admit, he is an armed robber.
He was sentenced to jail, and since then, I have not spoken to him since.
I think about him all the time and I hope that he is doing well. I’m sure that he was sentenced to some jail term, and then hopefully he receives some good counseling and/or therapy to help him avoid any other relapses back into this life, and I hope that he can simply consider this the darkest of chapters in his life and go on to amazing things. Mainly, I think about him every time I see anyone doing that same shameful walk from the side door of the PD to the back of the cop car on the evening news. It’s invariably some scraggly looking guy, wearing trashed clothing, and looking completely defeated while the newscaster explains to me that he robbed a gas station, or was caught stealing, or was in some stupid bar fight.
When I watched my friend do that shameful walk, I thought about his parents and how much they loved him. I thought about his pretty house on the golf course in Fair Oaks. I thought about his smile and his laugh and the great times that we had over lunch. I thought about how this armed robber on TV was not the REAL man, but was simply the culmination of some truly awful choices. I thought about how, if put into a particular set of circumstances, I suppose that I could be making that walk. Or my children could be doing it. Or YOU could be doing it.
I know that we all make a noise and say “No way man. I know what causes some people to end up being armed robbers, and I’ll never find myself in that position.” Maybe you’re right. I’m sure you will be. But what if you DID go through a series of maladies in your life, and you ultimately found yourself homeless. You have no money, no prospects, and you look like hell. You’re hungry. And then I read in the police blotter about you being picked up for stealing a car. Or God forbid, holding up my local gas station.
We all start off the same. We are all babies with unlimited potential for the rest of our lives. That gangbanger on TV started off as a baby just like you. We are born into different circumstances, and some of us have an environment better conducive for success, but we all have the same potential. Babies in some tough areas are born to crack addicted mothers, living in poverty, and all they know is the struggle to eat and survive. Some of us are born to suburbia parents with stable jobs and a loving family, and worrying about survival is foreign to us. But ya know, both babies are precious. Both babies have the same needs. Both babies grew to be children and had huge dreams of being astronauts and firefighters. Both of them wanted to be…good.
The point to all this is that I think that we all tend to think of people in terms of absolutes. My friend, living on the golf course with his great job…well, he’s a good person. The guy doing the “perp walk” to the back of the cop car is very bad. We figure that one person is, and always will be, good; and one is, and always has been, bad. And I just find that unfortunate.
Sometimes I wonder if we are so fast to ignore our bloated criminal justice system because we just figure “Well, if you end up in the penal system then you are a bad person and you deserve to rot in there.” At the same time, I wonder if that bad guy in the penal system would have gone on to lead a productive and fulfilling life if he or she had YOUR opportunities. If they weren’t worried about survival from the moment they were born, I wonder if they could have been your co-worker at USAA. At the same time, if you didn’t know anything but poverty, crime, and violence…are you the one that we’re ignoring while you rot in Huntsville?
Maybe. Maybe not. I wish, though, that I had a magic wand. I wish that I had some magical way to take many of the people in our criminal system that had made a stupid decision, and somehow teach them how to move forward in their lives. Teach them how to kick drugs, handle their anger differently, and better their education. I know it would require a magic wand, but I wish that it could happen.
I think that knowing that people’s lives are being wasted year after year while they sit in a cell because they were hungry and desperate and robbed a store is a very real tragedy. I know that there were probably 1000 decisions that led to that moment of desperation, but it would be magical to witness true rehabilitation. It’s kind of like how in Portugal they have legalized all drugs. When you are caught with them, they send you to rehab. No jail, just remedy. They understand that good people get hooked on drugs, and they just need to understand how to make better choices as opposed to having their entire lives ruined over addictions.
Next time that you walk down Main Street in our primarily white, upper-middle class suburban town…take a look around. Any one of these people could fall into some bad situations and ultimately find themselves labeled a criminal. What if we looked at those around us that are in trouble, or are hitchhiking, or are drinking beer sitting on a curb as people with unlimited potential as opposed to people that are beyond hope. What if, instead of rolling your eyes at them and figuring that they are just worthless losers with no hope, you treated them the way that you would treat your own brother.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. I really dig PEOPLE, and find them infinitely fascinating. They are broken, and mean, and cruel. They are also beautiful, and full of love, and grace. In fact, we are all EACH of those characteristics if you find us at the right moment. Life is too short to focus on only one side of the coin, and I hope that nobody ever gives up on me and leaves me in the gutter should be unfortunate enough to find myself there. Just like some of those guys that are sleeping under a tree tonight, I’m a father, and a son, and a person with infinite potential that assuredly never gets it all right.
Welcome to October. Ah, cooler temps. May you wander your roads upon your journey, and may you EXPLORE your heart as you do so. Lend a hand, hug a heart, and make someone smile. And may someone do the same for you.