The Eyes Have It

An article originally written for and distributed by Leadership Oklahoma on February 15, 2019. Modified only to generalize my original references to the intended audience.

The eyes, peering through the cells, will haunt me for a bit. Staring at us like we were animals, I realized shortly into our visit that they were the animals, not us. I felt an eerie discomfort in visiting someplace akin to stables and realizing that there were humans, not horses, gazing back at me. One pair of eyes reminded me of a relative, a good man who’s battled with mental illness for 20 years and struggles to function in everyday life. Another pair of eyes reminded me of a close friend, a whip-smart twenty-something whose anger and drug dependency have led to him drifting through life, staying at one place or another, using a new cell phone each week, out of touch with his children and family. A third pair of eyes reminded me of, well, me. Like me, he probably came from a broken home, perhaps has an abusive father, went to a crumbling public school, and didn’t see a clear path for career development and independence in his future. Who knows? Maybe we were from the same neighborhood, in the same classes at school, maybe even went to the same church as kids. Would I remember him?

I think about those eyes and I’m compelled to recognize and appreciate how transformative a lucky break or two can be in one’s life. When I was 17, my mother suggested I quit the part-time job I had at Crossroads Mall and, instead, take an internship somewhere. She printed out an email she had received from Leadership Oklahoma City, listing internship opportunities offered by many of the graduates. She pointed to a specific one — an internship at Oklahoma City University — and said, “You should look into this.” I took an internship at OCU, was recruited on scholarship to attend there, met my wife, got my degrees, found a network of people to support and encourage me, made some good choices, made some bad choices, figured things out, got it together, and built this life I enjoy today. All of that began, in a very real way, with that one opportunity that was handed to me.

And a side-note: My mother went through a leadership program very similar to mine when she was a single parent, working on her degree at night. What if she hadn’t gotten that opportunity from her boss? What if she hadn’t had the opportunities that were given to her, and in turn, hadn’t been able to offer them to me? What about those who are so far removed from the lifestyle I was fortunate enough to have that this very story to them seems like a fairy tale?

What opportunities, then, were given to the owners of those eyes peering at me from behind those prison cells? What skills were they taught, what medication were they given, what treatment were they offered, what correctional actions were they given? What sort of love and fellowship were they given, even when they did not deserve it? Were they shown kindness?

I’m not suggesting everyone in a maximum security prison is innocent, or that we should feel bad for them, or that we should question our culpability in their situations. But I simply can’t help but wonder what I could be doing today and every day to ensure the people I encounter at work, at home, in passing on the street, and even on the Internet, feel loved, supported, absolutely never alone and, when needed, forgiven. How can I show kindness to them, and what sort of impact would that kindness have on them, on their lives, on their families? What sort of ripple effect could I create every single day to make the world just a little bit better?

As I ponder the time I spent visiting our state’s penitentiary and the conversations I’ve had about criminal justice reform, the state of our prison systems, mental health, drug courts, and the unending struggle most institutions in our state face regarding insufficient funding, I find myself drawn back to a central idea: Everything we’re struggling with is in some very real way tied to the lack of equality in our state. The opportunities we provide — institutionally, officially, through our government services, via public education; and socially, through the way we treat one another, where we put our money and attention, and the point at which we dial into an issue, or begin to care about an individual or group — or don’t provide, have repercussions that abound in every issue facing Oklahoma.

We have made it all too easy to “other” people, to put them in categories that separate them from us, to make it easier for us to assume someone else will help “them.” But there is no “them,” friends. There is only “us.” We are all we have.

Without the right medication, the right education, the right opportunities, and the forgiveness and love I’ve been given throughout my life, I could be the owner of those eyes peering out from a cell at you. And with only a few minor changes in your own life, you could be right there beside me in a cell.

Let’s remember that the opportunities we all have aren’t strictly for us, but are opportunities which can be leveraged to help others, to connect others, to intervene in the lives of others and to share our experiences, education and empathy with everyone we meet from this point forward.

Cheers to you, whomever you are. Let’s do great things for ourselves, but more importantly, for all those we encounter.