By Thomas Tartar, MD
“What I did is not who I am.”
It’s a powerful statement for someone who has felt the pain of doing wrong. Reflecting on the disconnect between one’s values and one’s actions requires substantial courage and inner strength — qualities we all possess. When you choose to use life’s experiences as your teacher, you learn the true nature of the world and your part in it.
We all come into this world with advantages and disadvantages. Broken homes, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, bigotry and indigence are all too common. Circumstances that affect where we find ourselves and our attitudes about how we perceive our place in life vary a great deal. Some of us were born on second base and think we hit a double; others have two strikes against them before they step up to the plate.
Regardless of the surroundings that life provides for us, we all have feelings, needs and responsibilities. Those feelings and needs make us human and keep us connected to each other; responsibility, particularly to ourselves, ultimately defines who we are as human beings. There is not one among us who, at some time in his life, did not feel compassion for another, nor is there one who has not felt anger and disappointment. Once we truly recognize that compassion as well as anger and disappointment are integral parts of being human, we can no longer separate these qualities from who we are anymore than we can separate a sunbeam from daylight.
“Realize that for a moment you gave up the essence of who you are.”
It is imperative that we prevent ourselves from being separated from our compassionate nature and giving in to manipulation and violence. This is not a subject to be discussed lightly over coffee and placed in some philosophical cloud and dismissed, because the outcome of such a disconnect can be devastating — devastating to the point of long-term incarceration or death.
Prevention requires remaining anchored to those inner values, which are truly important to us, and communicating in ways that reflect that commitment.
Non-violent communication gives us a blueprint for self-expression, and permits us to remain compassionate human beings in the process. It helps prevent us from falling into the trap we set for ourselves and redirects our energies into satisfying our true needs. It teaches you to use your feelings so that you may identify your needs and those of others, letting you communicate responsibly and with humanity. You learn to replace a quick reaction with a thoughtful, considerate response to obtain the goal of mutual understanding.
The correctional system requires inmates to make substantial changes before returning to society and becoming productive members of that society. Change is always difficult, but it is much more of a burden when it is made to please someone else. What’s important is not just to change, in the usual sense, but to become more of who you really are.
A person can only get to this point after he has taken a cold hard look at himself, using honest observation and introspection. Realizing that, for a moment in your life, you gave up the essence of who you really are — in a dispassionate, selfish and destructive way — can be an incredibly useful tool.
This knowledge connects you to every other person on the planet in a way that demands compassion and consideration for all, including yourself. More importantly, once attained, you can then experience the true value of remorse, experience your life as a child of God and be unafraid of what life has in store for you.
– Dr. Thomas Tartar was a guest speaker for the Non-Violent Communication Group at San Quentin.