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Emotional Detours
by JHW

I have a good friend who taught me an important lesson about dealing with volatile people.  He used one simple word that has the power to neutralize almost any aggression by a person in a position of authority.  The lesson is especially useful here in prison where life can be hard because, whether you are right or wrong, a confrontation with a correctional officer can often turn out bad.  However, the same is true for any confrontation, whether you are dealing with a boss, a senior official in the workplace, a supervisor in a government job, or even someone who just happens to be in your immediate vicinity.

My friend--let’s call him Rick--was a lot like the rest of us who needed better parenting: he got into trouble at a young age simply because he was susceptible to the unhealthy influences lurking in his community.  When he first came to prison at age 18, he had he had a 16 life sentences that were “corrected” down to 11 life sentences and several hundred years.  His early years in prison were not the most mature moments in his adult life.  It took him time to come to terms with his situation and his own mental activities.   After so many years of fighting, using drugs, drinking prison hooch, and taking months-long trips to solitary confinement, he decided to make a serious change in the way he approached life.

Rick didn’t see any burning bushes.  He didn’t have a religious or spiritual awakening all of a sudden.  In fact, he stumbled many times on his road to maturity, but he never forgot that he had made a decision to change for the better.

He began to read and learn.  And he read and learned some more.  And he continued to read and learn.  He studied religion, science, history, technology--computers in particular-- and he attended as many vocational, academic, and rehabilitative classes as he could attend.  Later, when his father passed away and left him a few dollars, Rick used his money wisely and earned a bachelor’s degree in business.

Where others fell to the wayside, Rick pressed onward.  Where others allowed negative conditions and negative attitudes to change their minds, Rick remained focused on his immediate, intermediate, and long-term agendas.  Where others failed, Rick grabbed success.

Whenever a person--whether officer or inmate, male or female--crossed his path, he refused to internalize any of the emotional or irrational outbursts that they would attempt to transmit into him.  If an officer yelled at him about something--and believe me, the officers yell a lot--he would calmly look at him or her and say, “Okay.”

- “Inmate, you’re not supposed to be there!”

- “Okay.” Pause “Where do you want me to go?”

- “Inmate, you’re doing that wrong!”

- “Okay.” Pause. “How do you want me to do it?”

If another inmate complained about hating this or being tired of that, Rick would look at him and go, “Okay”.

There were certainly times when he had to take action and make things happen, but the point of the matter is that he never let the negative outbursts or frustrations of others enter into his personal atmosphere.  Now that I think about it, I don’t recall ever hearing him raise his voice other than to call someone who was far away.  Rick didn’t avoid trouble because he was scared of anyone.  He could defend himself well and kick some tail when necessary, but he behaved himself in such a manner that no one troubled him.  He was proactive in staying positive, speaking respectfully to all, and working toward a better future.

It took me some time to assimilate the “okay” response that Rick demonstrated in my presence time and time again,  “Why do you let yourself get upset?” he would ask me whenever I responded emotionally to some transient circumstance or event.  When I answered his question  withe an emotional response, he would say, “Okay.”

He understood that it is not worth the trouble to try to argue against a negative attitude or closed channel.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”  Rick understood and demonstrated that no one can make you feel anything without your permission.

Most of us learn by default to meet aggression with aggression, insult with insult, but such behavior only proliferates irrational interactions and disrupts our plans. A well known sentence attributable to Shakespeare is, “To thine own self be true.”  When we allow people or situations to provoke us into an emotional detour, we fail ourselves in a very real, sometimes fatal, way.  However, there is a better way to avoid emotional detours: we can remain steady like the moon in the night sky.  We can discover our own personal agendas and set a course for fulfilling them without letting another’s negativity become our negativity.

Émile Cové informs us that if our emotions and our imaginations are conflicting, our imaginations will normally dictate how things turn out.  This is so because there is more going on behind the scenes than the eye can see.  Our minds are directly connected to the rest of existence, and every action has its reaction--even at the level of thought (mental activity).  So we must control our thinking.  We must not let morbid images find habitation in our spirits but instead focus on what is in our best interest and the best interest of those we care for.  Our very futures depend on it.

As for my friend Rick, his sentence was reduced again.   Twenty=six years into his sentence, he went back for a third sentencing hearing.  one moment he had 11 life sentences plus several hundred years; the next moment, he was standing as a free man in front of the courthouse waiting for a friend to come pick him up.  Imagine that!

Moreover, Rick never lost his focus.  He continued being who he was, knowing that having an agenda is not like shooting an arrow but more like launching a heat-seeking missile.  An arrow cannot adjust once it has been launched, but a missile can adapt to changing circumstances as it zeroes in on its target.  Rick is now working in a successful career in technology.  He has a beautiful wife, and he recently purchased a large, beautiful home.   He is grateful to God every day for everything he has been through and for everything he is currently experiencing, even all the tough times.

Rick’s life is a great example that demonstrates that when we control our emotions and minds, we also control our futures, because there is a link between sustained intention and fulfillment.  Emotional detours are a way of forgetting--at least temporarily--our goals.  If we let them, emotions detours can cause us to neglect our intended futures.

Just say, “Okay.”


Prisoner Letters

Latest Issue: 92