Thursday, June 22, 2006

El Abra Prison

(The mountain view of El Abra Prison, north of Cochabamba)

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About Forgiveness

By Collin Whelley

El Abra Prison stands a short forty five minute drive from Cochabamba. Its inmates are serving lengthy sentences for murder and rape. The Cedesol foundation and Sobre la Roca work with the metal workers and carpenters building parts of solar cookers and Cedesol’s double burner rocket stoves. In return prisoners earn wages set by them directly. This is money for there families and themselves. In the Bolivian prison system one must fund their own stay and provide for their families out side, with in the walls. Seldom do opportunities like these arise. Occasionally those who finish there sentences will have a job prospect with one of the two companies. Looking from the outside, giving a “murderer” or a “rapist” one more chance may be good, but would you be willing to take that chance? Does this sound like a risk your business is willing to take? Walking through the prison, embracing and greeting the inhabitants changes the way I look at people. Likewise it changes the way I look at forgiveness of others and myself.

Too often do I hear on the radio or television news the judgment of ideas and people. It is easy to judge. Life takes less time if I don’t have to think. However, if the answers are laid out in a book or in a speech or in the mind, we may never make room for those people we can’t understand. We can tell ourselves that murderers are bad people; they should be separated from society so those of us who are "normal" don’t have to deal with it. But in reality we just don’t want to think about it or don’t want to understand and see the ugly side of reality. Only the families of prisoners and victims have to deal with the truth.

The society of the United States objectifies people; prisoners, terrorists, movie and pop stars, and even political figures. Concerning prisoners and terrorists, we as a society picture them as animals and paint them with fangs like fascist propaganda proliferated during World War Two. In reality we are all just human and those who are looked apon as animals long to be considered human again. They are doomed to remember their past. If you believe that sinner must atone for what they have done, I asure you many of those who I have met are and will live in regret for the rest of their days.

An argument often used to punish those who are guilty of nasty crimes is one played on emotion. “If someone killed or raped your mother (or another family member) wouldn’t you want them to die?” Our justice system needs to have emotion but can never be run by it. That’s why big trials need to be moved out of the city or towns they originate in. We shouldn’t just think about the family that is mourning because when we are filled with emotion we don’t think clearly. Look at the times in your life when you have been betrayed or the people you felt loved you the most acted without regard for your feelings or interests. It is so hard to forgive these people because they have hurt you; the person you thought they loved or befriended. Our minds then create the illusion that they acted maliciously and with intent whether or not this is true. The friend becomes the victimizer, a thing, an object, totally separate from you and totally alien from everything that you believed they once where; and all in a flash. Now after, how can we forgive? How can we look at these people as human again and as a friend?

Of course I do not understand everyone’s situation and I have not been through what most victims have been through. I am not telling the world of the oppressed to forgive their oppressors. But I forgive them and today when I see your oppressor I will look at them as a human. If we truly want people to be rehabilitated we must treat them as human. I would feel like an animal if people looked at me and only saw the negatives of my past. I have met many people in Bolivia. Some take higher roads than others, but honestly the people who have made the biggest impression on me are those who have taken lower roads before but struggle to take the higher ones today. These are people who struggle to forgive themselves and change the course of their future and better the world around them. Imagine being separated from your family and friends; how you could cope with all of that? What path would you choose as a result? Not to be able to see your son play in his first soccer game or hear the first word of your baby girl. This sounds like torture weather we deserve it or not. But how do I change the way I look at criminals and how do I forgive myself and look at myself as human again?

My Uncle once told me that, in order to forgive yourself, you must first recognize that which you can and can’t control. Only worry about what you can control; start there. You can ask for forgiveness and hope that people will like and love you, but whether or not people do or not is up to them, not you. Today, personally, I can only step out the shadow of my own past and into the light of my future. It is always easier to see the vices in others, especially those closest to me, than to see and expose the negative aspects of my-self. But if I want to seek happiness I must walk out of my shadow not to forget but to make better and to change my behavior.

Some people use religion and God to answer questions of weather or not one is worthy of forgiveness. I believe that if your religion makes you a better person and a healthier actor in this world than what ever your religion is, is a wonderful thing. Felix is a friend of mine from El Abra prison. The last time I went back he told me that he wished he saw my face around more. I couldn’t help but believe that it was because I am not afraid and I see only the future in him. I couldn’t help but want to write to him and ask him to tell me everything that he has been through. His will be a face that I never forget. He is also an individual who has become devout in faith. I always respect that in people, though my faith is much different than his. But we are both becoming better people through our own beliefs and that is a wonderful truth.

Forgiveness is often challenging. Sometimes I need space and sometimes I need to confront it. Personally, I know that I am very hard on myself. No doubt I will receive a call from a friend or family member soon expressing how I need to not be so self critical. But that is not me; I am an animal fed by feedback and criticism. When none comes from the outside I must work from the inside. I must fight to better my self. It is clear to me that I am not perfect and God knows I am no angel. However, that is a wonderful peace of insight. I am writing a song entitled Augustine. Augustine was a man who prayed to be saved by God’s grace but not immediately for life and its sin was far too fun. Though I believe one must save himself, I also believe that there is a part of all of us that doesn’t want to be “angels” because it is too hard. Being an angel would be too much work. But our potential for good and greatness is what I think makes us human; our potential to help and forgive. If we could only believe in ourselves, let go of our mistakes, and truly let go of trespasses against us; our failures would be a lot less to deal with and the world would be filled with understanding. This is how I forgive those who have trespassed against me, I fight to forgive myself for all I have done, and hope that those I have hurt without knowing read this and think about my sincerity.