Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Showing Up

Jenny is on the Board of Trustees and an alumna of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. She is now on staff at Harvard and volunteers with Harvard Interfaith Prison Education (HIPE). Here, Jenny reflects on her first earlier this winter to the prison. 

Ironically, on my first trip to a prison, I worried about being judged.

I had signed up for Harvard Interfaith Prison Education (HIPE) a few weeks earlier, and there was some fear mixed into my decision to participate. My life has been one of great privilege, and it was hard for me to imagine what I could offer someone who had had to face challenges greater than I had ever encountered. I half expected my mentee to call me out on it and ask me why he should bother to talk to me when I couldn't have even the smallest inkling of what his life was like.

He didn't, of course. He was far happier to see me than I would have ever thought I deserved, and that turned out to be just one part of an attitude that was frankly amazing to me.

We get so many harsh presentations of prison and prisoners in popular culture. I'm sure many of them have at least a partial basis in reality, and I fear that some of them don't come close to the terrible conditions many prisoners face. But that harshness, however much it might exist in is life, did not exist inside the man I met.

It's not that he was cheerful about everything. He didn't try to make his life seem perfect. But it became clear from everything he said that he has been making use of all the resources available to him to try to build the best life he can. He takes classes and studies with fellow inmates and requests books from the library and works out and referees the prison basketball league. There is a lot of potential for life in prison to become empty, but he has managed to fill it.

It is a joy to be at the disposal of someone who is looking to see what good he can get out of a situation. To him, our visit became not something to be picked apart and found inadequate, but another source of value to add to his life. There were gaps between us -- in experience, in living situation -- but they were gaps he wanted to bridge, not use as a weapon.

It drove home to me some of the things that tend to hold me back from helping people. I tend to be a perfectionist; it's what led me to Harvard in the first place. And there is something to be said for trying to help the best we can, for training ourselves to serve others better, and for stepping back to examine our service to make sure it's as good as it can be. But there's not much excuse for holding back because we're worried about being judged and found not up to the task. Those are the times when it's most important to show up, do what we can, and possibly end up changing someone's life for the better.

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