By Tom Lagana
from “Serving Time, Serving Others”
“Forgive my family and friends? No way," Rob growled. "I'm going to hurt them when I get out of here!” These angry words came from one of the inmates who had agreed to participate in our Alternatives to Violence weekend workshop.
“You're missing the point, Rob. This exercise is designed to help us learn how to express our anger and work on ways to forgive,” another inmate replied.
Rob's body language matched the intensity in his voice. “I did everything for
them," he snarled, waving his arms as he spoke. "Since I've been in the joint they've
done nothing for me. I'm going to hurt them,” he insisted, "even if it lands me back in here!”
As the workshop progressed, and small groups rotated, mixing up the interaction, Rob repeated his story. During the breaks, I could hear him talking the ear off anyone who would listen, trying to justify his threats of revenge. “They let me down.
As soon as I get out of here, I'm going to get them back,” he boasted. Despite the
group's efforts to help Rob see he would only end up hurting himself by clinging to his resentments, he refused to let go of his destructive thoughts.
On the last day of our weekend behind the razor wire, we were instructed to sit quietly and write a letter to someone with whom we were angry. This particular
exercise, called “The Total Truth,” was an important part of the intensive experiential
workshop. Rob squirmed in his chair throughout the exercise. His biggest problem appeared to be selecting one particular person that made him angry from a comprehensive inventory of grudges.
The beginning of the letter consisted of an in depth description of our anger and
resentments. The subsequent paragraphs were devoted to explanations of our hurts, fears, regrets, and wants. The focus of our writing in the closing paragraph was on forgiving the target of our animosities. Actually mailing the letter wasn't a requirement, but writing it down was essential for a successful outcome to this exercise.
After the 30 minutes were up, everyone pulled their chairs back into a large circle to discuss the benefits. As I glanced over at Rob I couldn't help but wonder, What
ridiculous made-up excuses will he share?
As we went around the circle, each volunteer and inmate took a turn sharing.
We discussed insights we had gained from writing our letters, including ways of applying this technique of addressing anger and finding forgiveness and appreciation of self and others to our daily lives after the workshop was over.
Throughout the discussion, Rob's behavior was out of character. He remained
silent. The exercise was about to come to a close when Rob took a deep breath and cleared his throat, apparently ready to speak. I braced myself for the fury I had come to
expect from my bitter acquaintance. As he spoke, the evidence of the healing power of forgiveness, amplified by everyone in the circle, had found its mark.
We were rendered speechless as Rob spoke. “Looks like I have a lot of people
to forgive and plenty of letters to write.” In the end, he had spoken the total truth.
Total Truth. Reprinted by permission of Tom Lagana. ©2003 Tom Lagana from the book “Serving Time,
Serving Others: Acts of Kindness from Inmates, Prison Staff, Victims, and Volunteers” by Tom Lagana
and Laura Lagana.
Excerpts from “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul, Serving Time, Serving Others and Serving Productive Time