Last time I blogged – you know, right after I googled the name of a new friend only to find out that he had recently gotten out of prison for killing a cyclist while driving drunk - I was freaking out a little. Let me update you about that freak out and about my friend, the ex-con.
I shouldn’t call him an ex-con. It’s accurate, but I think he deserves something kinder, something that reflects the fact that he paid the debt that society asked him to pay and he is rebuilding his life . . . As you can see, I’ve decided not to condemn him in my personal sphere.
Sure, I freaked out about his past. It hurt me that someone I already had accepted as a friend had such a dark history. It angered me that he had so recklessly taken the life of another person. And it scared me that he was likely an alcoholic because it brings this question to my mind: Do I gravitate toward addicts, like my husband? It seems that some women are drawn into abusive relationships over and over. Am I drawn to charming, manipulative, selfish men? It is a scary, scary thought that will keep me out of the dating realm for a long time . . . but I digress. [Note, this man was never a romantic interest to me]
It took me a few weeks to really process this new discovery a la google. I avoided him in the meantime. I let the news stories I had read online percolate in my head. His mug shot. The angry and mournful comments from the community that stretched out below each article. I was angry right along with them. But there was one comment that softened my thoughts:
I knew this man 20 years ago … what a terrible shock. . . . As a cyclist, I share the outrage of the community and am confused by his lenient sentence. As the old friend of a talented, but self-destructive artist, I can’t help but be saddened by all the wasted potential that this event represents – a tragedy in the true sense. My thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s friends and family – though I’ll save a few for my old friend, too.
I was relieved to see that someone else - someone who knew him once - believed in his value, even if he had disappointed them. It gave me leeway to start believing my own intuition about him. I went about my life without making an attempt to think about him, but in the background I knew my brain was merging the man I had befriended with the cold facts I had learned.
Something else was happening in my brain. More and more each day, I admitted to myself that I was having a problem separating my new friendship from the lingering pain created by my husband. These two men are very different. My husband has not yet served his time or done anything to repay society. I pray he will reach that point someday. I pray that he will exit the correctional system and find a place in the community where he can be useful, accepted, and even find healthy friendships and loving relationships – not from me, mind you, but I do want that for him. So if I want that for the man who has created such damage in my life . . . then I think it is okay to help someone else accomplish those same goals. Or, at the very least, not hinder him.
I finally made two big decisions. First, I decided that I didn’t want to be the kind of person that couldn’t forgive, especially when the offense didn’t involve me. From the legal perspective, my friend had done his time and even been released early for good behavior. Second, I decided that I would never haunt a friend of mine with their past. I won’t confront him about it or question his personal penance. After all, I don’t want my own past haunting me.
The decision I hadn’t made was whether or not I was going to continue a friendship with him. It was easy to avoid him, so I gave myself permission to take as long as I wanted with it.
One morning I was sitting at Starbucks, typing away at my email. At a table very close to me sat two women. They were trendy, polished ladies, each staring at their smart phones even while they talked to each other. I was trying to tune their voices out while I worked, but little bits would slip through. One of them was talking about a high school friend that she had reconnected with over facebook. I tuned her out for a moment until she said, “He’s been in prison for the last fifteen years!” That’s when I very actively started listening. She sounded offended at his past, of which all she seemed to know about was his incarceration, but not the reason for it.
Her friend sympathetically replied, “You unfriended him, right?”
“Oh yeah,” she said.
That burned me to the core. Neither of them had stopped to contemplate what his crime was or whether he had changed his ways. Neither of them thought about what he was trying to do with his life now or what kind of grace they could offer him. I felt so strongly offended by their quick condemnation that I almost told them what cold bitches I thought they were. Instead, I packed up my stuff and paid my friend a visit. e’sHhhHhhh
That visit was a delight. In his office, where we were chatting, I suddenly was very aware of all the clips of articles, poetry, and handwritten notes he had pinned to his wall. They had to do with faith, resilience, following one’s passion, being optimistic, and seeking peace. He’s in the business of helping people, so I had always thought those clippings were there to motivate others, but now I hope it reflects his own journey, as well. He was happy to see me and I was happy to see him. We talked away for an hour. It was nice. I was sure then that I can be his friend.
One last thing . . .
Yesterday, I was at Walmart in the auto garage to get a tire fixed and my overdue oil change done. The rough-looking men who work there usually make me feel like I need to keep a wide birth. When I act that way, they respond in kind. This time, though, I felt like I should treat each of them like a member of my family - dad, son, brother. We chatted and joked and laughed. As I left, the men all gave me a cheerful goodbye, just like I was a friend who always visits. I can’t help but feel like this new ability to befriend unknown - and somewhat threatening looking - people stemmed from the whole dilemma above. I think maybe all the crap I’ve gone through and all the damage I’ve suffered might actually make me a better person! Go figure.