The Setup

In my job facilitating a new Coping Skills program the past year and a half, I’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to help guys better deal with incarceration and life in general; preparing and doing group presentations; reading dozens of books on change, personal betterment and managing/motivating others; and listening to faith-based, primarily Christian views on hardship, while incorporating much of all this into my own life. During the last few months of 2013 in particular, my co-worker and I dedicated ourselves to developing an effective, sustainable structure that other facilities will be able to easily adopt. Ultimately, all of this material revolves around improving and maintaining one’s quality of life, an issue largely misjudged as complex that I’ve realized actually comes down to two simple things: mentalities and habits – a one-two punch. (For several reasons I’m going to focus solely on mentalities here and address habits in the next post).

By mentalities I’m referring to the way we view life and everything in it. More specifically, I’m referring to our expectations and what we believe is right or wrong in any given situation. I could also use the word attitudes, but attitudes are associated more with behavior, whereas mentalities are more deep-rooted.

In order to genuinely understand our mentalities we must first understand where they come from. Look at the following picture of a woman staring off to the side (if you’ve done this before please bear with me).

Now look at the picture below.

What do you see? Probably a fairly young, attractive woman with a petite nose and gentle face. But what if I told you this is actually a picture of a sad looking elderly woman with a large nose and long chin? Look at the following picture.

Now look at the second picture, again… Can you see the elderly woman? Her nose and eye are the younger woman’s chin and ear, and her mouth is the younger woman’s necklace.

This exercise eloquently demonstrates how we don’t see reality so much as we see what our experiences have conditioned us to notice and concentrate on. By first and only looking at the picture of the younger woman we were unlikely to see the elderly woman in the second picture, even though both are equally present. In the same way, if we were socialized to (mistakenly) see others and bad luck as the causes of our problems and (mistakenly) see ourselves as limited in dealing with problems, we are unlikely to (accurately) see all of the evidence of our ability to overcome any obstacle – to do something about them or get the hell over them, as I touched on in The Power Within, Part 2.

Life constantly gives us reasons to at least question our mentalities. This is especially true for the overwhelming majority of us currently incarcerated, who’ve been mis-educated in fundamental ways – from lack of schooling, dysfunctional upbringings, or both. Add to this the frequent mental health issues, stress, anger/rage, sadness, etc. we experience and it’s as if life were literally shouting “Wake up Mothaf…!” Instead, we continue holding tight to familiar mentalities, never challenging the primary sources that nourish our suffering.

Habits are the building blocks of our quality of life; they determine how well or poorly our peace of mind/contentment is sheltered from hardship. Mentalities, however, are the foundation; they determine if and for how long that shelter exists. For example, the view that oral hygiene is important will not result in healthy teeth; but without such a view there’s virtually no chance we’ll engage in the daily activities necessary to have healthy teeth. And the number one obstacle to change we face is not some terrible habit or genetic characteristic – the cowardly, that’s just how I am, excuse. Rather it’s a mentality: that we’re somehow not human.

This mentality is not about us being aliens or demons. It’s about the foolish belief that we do not have the same weaknesses and strengths that every human being is born with. In regards to our supposed lack of human weaknesses, the foundation is arrogance, which causes us to comically overestimate will power. Look no further than our lives. Whenever we get caught doing something dumb we’re quick to own up to our flawed nature – I’m only human, everyone makes mistakes. But we repeatedly fail to extend this understanding of our humanity to the area of our lives it’s needed most: preventative measures – to limit our mistakes.

We’ve been operating with our false ideas and learned reactions for years and decades; they’re hard-wired to our physical existence. No matter how mentally strong or determined we are, we cannot expect to remove them, especially not soon, without help. Human nature and temptation are simply too strong for naked will power – which I’ll better explain when I address habits.

The false belief in our lack of strength, on the other hand, results from a lack of confidence caused by lies. (House of Healing by Robin Casarjian covers this issue very well, particularly for people with criminal backgrounds.)

Negative emotions are almost always lies employed by our egos to distract us from the beauty and harmlessness of reality (“to hate and fear is to be psychologically ill. It is, in fact, the consuming illness of our time,” H.A. Overstreet). These lies, such as fear, along with our human tendency to focus on the negative more than the positive are what cripple our confidence. The key is to force ourselves to focus on not only our achievements, small and old, but those of other members of our species; and to not forget that negative emotions, when ignored, fade into the background and eventually disappear. What isn’t true depends on our ignorance for survival.

All men are NOT created equal. We are, however, all created human, which guarantees that our actions and most of our feelings are determined by our thoughts. Thus, the first and arguably most important step, in light of the potential it has for our quality of life, is for us to exercise a mentality like that expressed by the Roman playwright Terence: “I am a man and nothing human is foreign to me.”

We are both weaker and stronger than we imagine. Remaining mindful of this creates a smooth transition to other accurate mentalities and, most rewardingly, good habits.

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