At the start of the new year, I guess it’s only fitting that I forego resolutions (which I make every day – the same ones) and start with my “Statement of Faith.” It’s kind of like one of those “This I Believe” type things but it’s what helped me through the hard times to the good times, there and back again. Without faith, without a “belief” of some kind, I never would have made it to recovery. Above all, today, with a broken ankle to boot (no pun intended - I actually did fall down the stairs two days ago), I want to start off the new year on a positive note. A hats off to resilience and persistence. They, along with love, are what have saved my life.
I believe in resilience, in the power of a person to sink to the depths and rise again. Resilience is like the palm tree that bends to the ground in a hurricane and survives to bear fruit the following season. To me, resilience is the defining quality that determines failure or success in a life.
I work in a maximum security prison for the mentally ill. Every day, I encounter men who have lost everything, the clinically depressed businessman who turned to cocaine then slept with his sixteen year old stepdaughter. He lost his wife, his family, his job, his house, his will to live. Then there’s the bipolar twenty-year-old who had his first manic episode and tried to rob a bank because he thought it was funny. He’s never been locked up before and is scared beyond words. He thinks he will die or be killed in prison so he becomes acutely suicidal. Then there’s the thirty-year-old felon who tried to kill himself with a rifle and then was arrested for possession of a deadly firearm. They come to me broken and suicidal. My job is to help them find a reason to live again.
It isn’t easy but it is miraculous. The key is connection. I’m not saying it works every time, but once a person has made genuine contact with another human being, something happens. A spark. Someone has taken their pain seriously so they begin to take their pain seriously themselves. They begin to take their lives seriously. They come to the point of saying, if I don’t matter, at least, my children matter or life matters or God matters or the mystery matters. Something matters.
At the end of my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Clarence the Angel gives George Bailey a book inscribed with the words “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” I never used to like that part. I used to think it should say “No man is a failure who doesn’t quit.” Many of the men I see come to me friendless and alone. And yet they don’t quit. Many of them want to. Many of them want to “hang it up” and die but they hang on to the precious sliver called life.
I guess my job as a social worker is to be a friend of sorts. But it’s more complicated than that. In prison, I don’t have the liberty to do what regular friends do - I can’t bring them food or go on walks or talk about my personal life. But it’s that miraculous connection that’s made that makes the difference. So maybe Clarence was right after all. “No man is a failure who has friends.” We can rise above anything if there is one, only one person who believes in us and believes our life matters. Then we can be resilient and rise above anything.