It is Never too Late to be What You Might Have Been. ~ George Eliot
I used to teach and counsel criminals. Yes, you read that right. No, I wasn’t extolling the virtues of a life of crime to my minions or teaching an underground network of protégés how to execute the perfect crime a lá The Art of the Scam 101 (Yes, I just made that title up, adding italics for dramatic effect.) Rather, I taught life skills and interpersonal relations to small groups of incarcerated men prior to their release from a medium security prison back into mainstream society. This bold initiative was part of a comprehensive Correctional Recovery program based on a cognitive-behavioral approach to change, with the intended outcome of reducing risk of recidivism. Recidivism refers to the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend upon release into the community, thereby hastening a rapid return to prison, usually within the space of a year, and often within the first couple of months of freedom. By participating in this intensive curriculum, hardcore criminals learned new ways of thinking and acting while also developing prosocial problem solving skills and effective coping skills. This new social skillset empowered them to take responsibility for their life choices and enabled them to effectively deal with everyday stress and find alternative responses to stimuli, contrary to their lifelong, habitual patterns and maladaptive reactions to circumstances that created consequences that in most cases they did not intend or want. Through the practice of mindfulness, they were able to cultivate self-awareness and gain insight into their feeling states and motivations, an awareness process which enabled them to identify with and develop empathy for others. Contrary to popular opinion fueled by perceptual biases, or stereotypes, that are reinforced in the media and by some members of the law enforcement community, I found most of these convicts were actually good people who had families and loved ones, like you or I, but whose habitual patterns of impulsive choices, faulty thinking and maladaptive coping skills resulted in their criminal behavior and subsequent incarceration. Because they reacted to life, instead of responding after taking a moment to think it through, they committed irreversible damage with far-reaching consequences that they would regret for the rest of their life. “If only” was a common mantra echoed throughout the prison, reverberating off the prison walls, repeating mercilessly like an infinite feedback loop running through the mind of every inmate. I’m sure the same refrain of regret plays in many of our own heads as well, perhaps not to the same extreme, but nonetheless it is an all-too-common recurring theme that most of us are quite familiar with. How many times do we speak without first thinking how our words will impact the intended (or unintended – think children and bystanders) receiver, “automatically” blurting out hurtful words that we can never take back? Words matter! Or how often do we act impulsively, without weighing the pros and cons of our behavior, only to destroy a relationship, hurt a loved one or lose respect and trust from the people we care about most. It only takes a brief moment in time to alter the course of your entire life (and someone else’s) forever. Accordingly, a moment of forethought or flash of insight could save you from years of regret for doing something you later wish you hadn’t. Words spoken but later retracted still have lasting impact – once they are uttered into being, words take on a life of their own in the universe. Actions taken are often irreversible, despite any damage control or corrective action taken after the fact.
It all comes down to a matter of choice. The more informed the choice is, the greater the chance of it being the best course of action. Even a split second decision is chosen, however automatic the reaction may seem, based on your existing information or lack thereof, as well as your past experience, attitude, mood, beliefs and preconceptions. It is always wise to stop and breathe, to “slow the roll,” so momentum does not take over your rational choice. Step back and evaluate your options…if a situation permits, walk away as a means of interrupting the thought process or behavior sequence – this gives you time and space to shift your perspective and make a conscious choice without the pressure and subjectivity caused by being “caught up” in the moment.
I hope that in my role as teacher, coach, mentor and counselor, I was able to change lives and make a lasting impact in the hearts and minds of those I served, as well as positively impact those people affected by my students’ choices and actions, including any victims, family members and loved ones in their past, present or future. I am grateful for the rewarding experience and valuable life lessons learned from my students during my time as a course facilitator for the Correctional Recovery Academy.
Anyone is capable of change, but it is not by any means a passive process, nor is real change forced onto someone through the external application of pressure or negative consequence. Our thoughts (and associated feelings) are what drives our actions, so any change must begin at the level of thought. Any action we do is driven by an internal desire, a desire to obtain a certain result, a perceived “payoff”, that is essentially a thought perceived experientially as either pleasure or relief from pain.
I cannot change anyone outside of myself, but I can support someone who is willing and open to the possibility of change as well as facilitate the transformative process through education, empathy, love, guidance, encouragement and positive feedback. If you are coachable and open minded, your possibilities are limitless, your potential is infinite and your power, beyond measure.
It matters not who you are or where you’ve been, you can write a new story and create the life of your dreams. Whether you are a card carrying member of the exclusive “Yeah but” club of exceptions to the rule or you wear your a defining label like a irrevocable badge of shame, i.e. lifelong criminal – chronic procrastinator – stressed out employee – “doubting Thomas” – down-on-your luck pessimist – stay-at-home mom lacking education or skills – divorcee going through a mid-life crisis – or any other self-identification as a proverbial underdog, you can drop the persona today, and begin exploring your authentic self, the person behind the mask, the person you could have been, had you not been indoctrinated with bullshit from the day you left the comfort and safety of the womb.
In the inspiring words of George Eliot, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
Embrace change with open mind and grateful heart, as change is the only constant you can bet on in this life. Life, like the universe itself, is in perpetual motion, as evidenced by ever-expanding space, rotation of planets, the passage of time, the change of seasons, cellular formation, birth and death – change is happening on so many levels, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, contributing to growth and progress as well as to decompensation and decay. Feelings, thoughts and mood states are all temporary and transitory, changing from moment to moment, so it is pointless to get attached to anything. Even more wasteful is any effort or energy devoted to controlling things or events that are not within our internal locus of control. External events are subject to randomness so while we can appreciably influence outcomes, the presence of randomness, or chaos, may thwart our best intentions to control all variables. Surrender to the chaos, instead of resisting change, and you will move gracefully through it. The obstacle is the way…amidst the chaos and confusion you will find your inner sanctuary, where peace and order are always accessible to you.
©️2019 Lisa Pearlman