It All Depends on the Side You Choose

Because my focus is the present, and especially what’s to come, I try to refrain from talking much about my past. Other than for the sake of demonstrating the progress of my personal development, what I did and who I was seem irrelevant outside my own life. But recently I’ve discovered that my story could be useful to others. I feel though that it might also alienate readers who disagree with the belief system guiding my path to redemption. I just hope those individuals don’t let such disagreement turn them off to the mission statement of theinnervoice84 blog: communities, specifically the formerly and currently incarcerated, working together to solve their problems. For better or worse, here’s my testimony.

I grew up in inner city Milwaukee, the only child of a lower middle class mixed couple (white Mom, black Dad). I was a short, shy, pretty boy with white people hair, and more interest in soccer than basketball. Not surprisingly, I was an easy target for the jokes and macho contempt of my predominantly black friends and peers. I was also a clown, dangerously independent-minded (at group outings, for example, I routinely wandered off to do my own thing), and had a very loving family. As a result, the teasing and minor bullying didn’t crush my self-esteem.

Eventually I got taller (5’10”), fell in love with hooping and got good at ribbing people back – or oftentimes first. But I never really learned how to be an adult. Both in and outside my family I had numerous examples of the responsibility and maturity it required and the assumption was, as it usually is with kids, that I’d just imitate them. In fact, I probably would have if not for more prominent influences.

Directly through its lyrics and images and indirectly through its effect on the culture that surrounded me, the intoxicating negativity of rap music became my bible in my journey to manhood. In time I began selling drugs, collecting mostly illegal weapons and got my “luv” of firearms tatted on my chest. By about the time I was 16 the chip on my shoulder from years of having my masculinity attacked had fused with my skin and made me immune to the wise counsel of those who’d been in my shoes. I had something to prove and wisdom and reason would not hold me back.

Fast forward three years. The charge is first degree intentional homicide. A minor drug deal turned robbery became an act of fatal revenge. The details don’t matter; only the sadness and stupidity hold meaning. Within mere seconds, decades of potential was demolished leaving two separate groups of loved ones to sift through the rubble for something to ease the pain of the road ahead.

I’ve never been a violent person, at least not in the typical reactionary sense. The only two fights I’ve ever been in happened at county jail while my case was being processed and several well-respected non-family members (business owners, professors, the brother-in-law of an ex-Wisconsin governor) wrote letters to the judge about how uncharacteristic my crime was. But I was vengeful, responding to disrespect and provocation outside the heat of the moment. Honor and justice have always been extremely important to me and back then this translated into loyalty to the street code, which demanded never shall anyone punk you. For me this was rule number one and I was all too eager to enforce it in my methodical, over-the-top style. A righteous mercenary in my eyes. Realistically, just another puppet in ego’s workshop.

Initially I couldn’t get past the 17 year sentence. I kept telling myself something would shake: the state would reinstate parole, I’d be resentenced to less time, etc. Slowly I gave up on this hope and instead came to realize how lucky I was. As I’ve mentioned before, no one truly knew how close to the devil I was in my self-proclaimed noble bloodlust. Several times during that last summer of my freedom, I was literally no more than a ski mask, an unregistered vehicle, or a better firing angle away from multiple life sentences and putting my family in grave danger (all in the name of protecting the dignity of my clique). Then, had I not come to prison, there was the guarantee of future opportunities – after all, if we’re looking for it, people will always give us a reason to feel disrespected. More importantly, how does 17 years make up for taking a young life?

To anyone more than a week old it was clear that somewhere along the line I’d made a wrong turn. Prior to being sentenced I’d been concentrating more on what I’d done wrong to get caught. Not long after I got to prison, however, I began to concentrate more on what I’d done wrong as a person. The harshness of my new circumstances was quickly waking me up to reality and I needed answers.

Since middle school I’ve been unable to accept the concept of an all-knowing creator, so there was extremely little chance of theistic religion leading me out of the dark. Yet I knew I was missing something; there was more than what I’d been chasing in life. Inevitably, I gravitated towards Buddhism (though technically I’m not currently a Buddhist) and the road back to humanity started to clear up. Everything bad in my life, the growing pains of my childhood, the petty grudges and hate of my adolescence, the suffering of incarceration, it all came down to one thing: Ego. Ego was the reason for my cowardly desire to feel superior, my ignorant belief that I was more worthy of respect than others, and consequently my natural though weak impulse to take offense to, well, anything. Of course, this only meant I’d discovered the enemy. The hard part was gaining the upper hand.

In “The Wisdom of Two Wolves”, an old Cherokee tells his grandson about the battle being waged inside people. One wolf is evil, anger, greed, jealousy, envy, sorrow, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, and lies. The other is serenity, joy, truth, humility, empathy, hope, love, gratitude, generosity, and compassion. “But grandpa”, the child asks, “which one wins?” “The one you feed, son.”

I had to starve the beast. My mind had already converted but I couldn’t consider the change genuine until my entire system fell in line.

I began to rebel against my ego; it said left, I went right. If I got into it with somebody I’d go apologize to them later, regardless of my innocence in the matter. If I lost big in fantasy football or had something stolen I’d give away some of my canteen to a neighbor. If correctional staff insulted me – the hardest thing for me to deal with in here – I’d laugh at and admonish my hurt pride like a teenager does his younger brother throwing a tantrum: “Grow up you little baby.” I constantly evaluated how I dealt with events in order to game plan for a better response next time. Though time after time I failed to measure up to my ambition, I was determined. Gradually, frustratingly so, I began to truly change my instincts.

In many ways I haven’t changed. I’m still a clown, and my sense of humor, if anything, has only expanded due to my peace of mind. I’m still hip-hop to my core (the non-negative type though like Rhymesayers out of Minneapolis, the movie Brown Sugar, and the choreography duo Tabatha & Napoleon). And as a human I will always struggle to match my reactions to my expectations. But these are superficial points. I look back at how hungrily I fed on naïve judgments of others and thoughts of payback that ego dangled in front of my immaturity, and in a very real way it’s as if I’ve undergone a heart transplant. It’s hard to explain. I’m the same, but I’m so different.

Maybe I’d have matured the way I have or at least broke free from the claws of my vengefulness even if I hadn’t put myself and those I love through this hell. I’ll never know. More importantly, I won’t let myself entertain such thoughts. What could have been is a picture with two sides and, like everyone, I have the choice to either focus on how things could be better or how they could be worse. A choice between illogical sadness or eternal contentment. Talk about an easy decision – although the other side does occasionally succeed in distracting me.

My future might be bright, it might be dim, it might even get cut short. I can’t fully control the outcome there. However, I’m blessed in so many ways and will continue to share my good fortune in order to build up those headed for or caught up in destruction. I just hope I can make a difference.

Keep boxing temptation. Give freedom a hug for us who can’t.