Being Human 101

In one of my Fountain Pen connections, we began a discussion about challenges that we face. We talked about how each of us go through experiences that, when we look back, seemed to have been a fork in our journey. And, based on our reaction to those experiences, our life may have taken a very different direction than we may have initially imagined for ourselves.

Photo by James Wheeler on

Often the decisions we make are the result of hasty reactions, shaped by our perception of the world and our perception of how we fit in it. If our perception of the world, society, and particularly ourselves is dysfunctional then our reactions – in large degree – will reflect a similar level of dysfunction. How we were raised, what societal environments we were exposed to, and even what addictions haunt us, all affect our reaction to situations we are faced with.

When Joseph was 18 years-old, he found himself making a hasty reaction in a difficult situation. He has been incarcerated ever since. He contributed the following:

I appreciate how you include me in your conversations. I think you are a fantastic human being who, like most of us, have learned a great deal about yourself through these kind of dialogues. I don’t know who you were before you wrote this letter, but I think your letter allowed me to understand your passion and how this journey has changed you.

You are so human. Just like me, we have faced many obstacles in life. I had a way of dealing with obstacles that eventually led me to prison. However, through this experience I’ve also allowed myself to be open to the idea that I can change for the better and that the way the world sees me is only a delusion whereby people get to place me in a stereotypical role. This, in large part, is due to their desire to strip my humanity. Thank you for remembering that I’m also human.

– Joseph. (Joseph has been incarcerated for over 15 years.)

Extending this type of humanity can be challenging. Did you observe the duality of Joseph’s response? First, he beautifully articulated the disparity that exists between who he knows himself to be and who society stereotypically labels him to be. This is a critical realization for each of us to make! We each are infinitely so much more than the labels society mindlessly slaps on us. Then, he recognized the need to allow himself space to believe he could change for the better. Believing change is possible is a powerful step forward. However, Joseph clearly seems to still struggle with creating that same space for society, which is a common and understandable struggle for nearly all individuals who are or who ever have been incarcerated. It is not a hope that burns very brightly – if it is burning at all.

I believe change is possible and that we all can do a better job of creating a healthy space for change.

Part of being human is allowing ourselves – and others – the space to experience setbacks, wrong turns, and detours. I know I have had my fair share of them, and I’m pretty sure you have too. Welcome to “Being Human 101.”

The Sounds of Loneliness

It is a scientific fact that we are a very special species. It almost seems like interaction between ourselves and other humans is a necessity of life. When we are surrounded by close friends and family we tend to feel extremely loved and are usually very happy. But, if we are denied those interactions then we become lonely and feel very sad.

It is also a fact that we navigate our world by our five senses, one of which is sound. Our world is full of sounds and they can have both positive and negative effects on us. For example, the sounds of a child’s laughter melts our hearts and makes us feel happy, or the sound of a bird singing makes us feel relaxed and content, or a sad song makes us feel sad. Did you know that sounds not only come literally but metaphorically as well?

We are complicated creatures who are full of, and driven by, emotions that impact us all day, every day. Scientists still have not cracked the coding behind our emotional engine or how it all works.

As I have already demonstrated, literal sounds have an impact on our emotions and overall mood. But what about metaphoric sounds? What is a metaphoric sound? It is an action.

Sadness is an emotion that causes a lot of problems for most people. What is one of the biggest conditions that causes sadness?


Loneliness has many sounds to it but as you will see, those sounds are almost always part of the same song.

So, what does loneliness sound like? It sounds like being picked last, or not being picked at all, when players are being chosen by sports team captains. It sounds like a spouse wanting a divorce. It sounds like being in a room full of people and being ignored by all of them. It sounds like being locked away and forgotten or abandoned by everyone you once knew. It sounds like a parent who refuses to spend time with their child. It sounds like a person who refuses to spend time with their spouse. It sounds like a friend who turns their back when you need their help. It sounds like not being desirable enough. Or, it could even sound like a society who thinks you are worthless.

Ultimately, the sounds of loneliness are part of the same song: rejection. This song is the largest contributor to depression which is the largest cause of suicides in our society. The sounds of loneliness are sounds that I wish we could not hear and are sounds that our world could do without.

The Sounds of Loneliness” was authored by Scotch. Scotch has been incarcerated for eight years.

The Unaffected

At a very young age, we are taught how to read and write. We learn to form words as we learn our a-b-c’s. We learn to read as we slowly sound out c-a-t. Over time, words turn into sentences and sounds turn into connections. Before we realize it, a whole new world opens up to us. Can you imagine a life without words? A life without stories?

When we are young emerging readers, perhaps we smile as we read the lilting words of Dr. Seuss:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

As we grow into intermediate readers, perhaps we stop to think when we read the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

And, perhaps as we develop into experienced readers, we are moved to action when we hear the unwavering words of Benjamin Franklin:

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

If you are reading this right now, you are more fortunate than approximately 70% of the incarcerated population, who can’t read much above a fourth grade education.

You are among the “unaffected.”

Why is literacy so important – especially among the incarcerated population? Literacy and recidivism rates are directly related. The higher the literacy rate, the lower the recidivism rate. A recent study reported that “those who had received correctional education had 43 percent lower odds of reoffending than inmates who did not.”

Literacy skills also open up better employment opportunities to an already discriminated against population. “According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level, ‘meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower paying jobs.’ Data supports that those without sufficient income earned by work are the most prone to crime. Paul Romero, a correction official once noted, ‘With legal means of succeeding in society narrowed, illiteracy is heavily implicated in the crimes landing many behind bars in the first place.’”

Furthermore, the Department of Justice stated, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”

The link between insufficient literacy levels and crime, violence, and incarceration is clear.

It is our responsibility – as the “unaffected” – to bring relief to those who are “affected.”

Whether delivered in the lilting words of Dr. Seuss, the stirring words of Martin Luther King Jr., or the motivational words of Benjamin Franklin, the message remains the same:

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

It is up to you.

It is up to me.

It is up to all of us.

In Defense of Liberty

“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” 

Benjamin Franklin penned those words nearly 300 years ago but they are more applicable now than ever before. In the wake of a global pandemic, fear and control have convinced us that sacrificing our civil rights – even temporarily – is acceptable. Perhaps we have “purchas[ed] a little temporary safety” from the effects of a virus. But at what cost? By conceding our liberties? By being conditioned to concede even more in the future?

Battles were fought to obtain these liberties. Wars raged to defend these liberties. Lives were lost on both foreign and domestic soil. Our brothers and sisters, fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers laid down their lives in defense of our liberty. They weren’t doing it for themselves. They were doing it for us! 

Are we somehow exempt from defending these same liberties? Are our lives somehow worth more than theirs? Will our children somehow not need the same liberties?

A democracy requires men and women to be agents unto themselves to defend their freedom. When a democracy collapses, it is because the individuals and families are dropping their arms. What are the usual symptoms? First, there is a feeling of fear, then resignation, then we get used to the worst. “To get used to” is a horrible phrase, to say the least. To get used to violence, to degradation, to mediocrity, to oppression, to humiliation. (Charles Didier)

This memorial season, and always, may we pick up our arms in defense of our liberties. 

A Personal Pandemic

Under threat of having a misdemeanor slapped on your criminal record, Utah has been ordered to “stay home, stay safe.” They clearly tried to put as positive a spin on it as possible. To be clear, we are under a statewide lockdown or house arrest. Why? A virus. Yes, a virus much like the common cold or the flu. What is the difference with COVID-19? Fear. Fear has fueled society’s reaction to this virus. Society tends to fear what it doesn’t understand or what it wants to control. Fear is a powerful motivator and it is fueled by ignorance.

When I was young, I remember riding in the car with my dad. As we neared the end of a long road trip, we were on I-15 coming over the point of the mountain. It was late at night and everything seemed funny to me that late at night. I remember seeing a sign on the side of the road forbidding cars from stopping to pick up hitchhikers because the state correctional facility was located at that exit. The stark buildings, the three rows deep of high chainlink fences, and the razor wire were hard to miss. I remember laughing and joking about the sign. I am ashamed to admit that I made several jokes out of ignorance that I deeply regret. Although I was very young and was mostly poking fun at the sign, had I truly been aware – even that would have been curbed.

As I drive by Utah State Prison now, my perspective is completely different. I gaze over at the rows of razor wire in sad disbelief that mass incarceration is society’s solution for an epidemic – an epidemic caused by addiction, mental illness, social disconnect, ignorance, as well as economic, physical, and emotional disparity.

Mass incarceration is an epidemic.

COVID-19 is a pandemic.

Society’s reaction to both has been virtually identical.

Take a moment to reflect on the impact that COVID-19 has had on you and the individuals who are closest to you. Now take it a step further and consider the impact that COVID-19 has had on society. A large percentage of the world is on house-arrest, social distancing prevents anyone from getting within 6 feet of each other, civil and religious rights have been revoked, personal and family connections have been broken, millions of people are out of work, over-reacting and panic has compounded the problem further by leaving grocery store shelves stripped and bare, the economy is in shambles, and fear and control are prevalent. The emotional and mental health of countless lives is being ravaged by isolation, depression, stress, anxiety, and an overall absence of hope. In short, the world is getting just a small glimpse of what it feels like to be incarcerated with an indeterminate sentence.

A virus is a virus. We don’t tend to fear the common cold or the flu like we have been conditioned to fear COVID-19 because we understand it. We understand what causes it and we understand what makes it better. Individuals sometime die from the flu, but we still seem to work through it.

A person is a person. Period.

Sadly, we have been conditioned to fear individuals with certain challenges. Maybe we don’t fully understand them and that scares us. Perhaps we or someone we love has been hurt. It could be that we would rather sweep the matter under the rug than acknowledge our own contribution to and shortcomings in the situation. It is, after all, much easier to make jokes about the improbability of picking up a hitchhiker on I-15 dressed in his finest whites with UDC INMATE stamped across his back and down his right pant leg in bold, black lettering as I did when I was a kid. It is another matter entirely to accept responsibility for society’s contribution to the mass incarceration epidemic.

In our efforts to “protect” or prevent “anything bad from happening to anyone” we are causing more damage than we realize – just like we are witnessing in the COVID-19 pandemic. To put this in perspective once again, in an extremely short amount of time, the economy has collapsed, emotional and mental health has plummeted, interpersonal relationships are being crushed, and violence has increased as a result of society’s “solution” to the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of mass incarceration on the individual as well as his/her family and friends is exponentially more destructive and devastating than the COVID-19 pandemic. I have personally been affected by these destructive and devastating effects.

I have never met a finer group of human beings than the ones that society has locked up and written off. Unfortunately, society only sees the labels it has branded them with: drug offender, sex offender, felon, murderer, con, manipulator, criminal. But that is not who they are. They have hopes and dreams, they have struggles and fears, and they have contributions to make that will change the world in such positive and remarkable ways. We, as a society, are not complete without them and we never will be until we stop treating them like a pandemic and start treating them like the exceptional human beings that they are. We need them just like they need us.

A person is a person, and every life has infinite worth and exponential potential.