Who amongst us has ever been punished for being naughty? Gotten a time-out or been lectured or spanked or sent out in the hall or to the principal? Raise your hands, please. Yep, I thought so.
The ten billion connections we can make in the human brain guarantee that some choices will be faulty and we will do things that we regret, that hurt others or ourselves. It’s part of the deal evolution made with us when it gave us the capacity to choose beyond our animal instincts. I’ve never seen a kitten or a puppy in time-out nor a jail for teenage elephants.
It appears that punishment and threat of punishment is necessary to contain the chaos of human fallibility. We’ve amassed quite a list of socially approved and government-sponsored punishments over the millennium—drinking poison hemlock, crucifixion, burning at the stake, the guillotine, the rack, public hanging, waterboarding, the electric chair, whipping, the stocks, solitary confinement, prison, spanking, dunce caps in the corner, school detention, time-out— not to mention threats of burning in eternal hellfire. Aren’t we imaginative in the ways we can kill and torture and punish and shame each other?
We would be hard put to convince people that some form of punishment was unnecessary in human society. But what if punishment was something more than controlling the damage? What if it actually served to rehabilitate the transgressor, move them from their bad choices and worst selves to something better? Wouldn’t that make sense?
This on my mind as my colleagues and I met with 4 boys who had behaved poorly in our music class. Nothing drastic, just the usual antics of mischievous kids. But these guys do hold a certain power in the class pecking order and seducing their classmates down the dark path of anti-social behavior. So there we sat and one of them said, “Are we in trouble or do you just want to talk with us?” And my answer was, “Yes.” On I went:
“How do you guys feel about Donald Trump?” General nods of disapproval. “Well, I found out recently that he was a bad boy in school and got sent all the time to detention. And then his parents finally sent him to a military school. All that punishment, but none of it helped him understand why his behavior as a bully was something that he could change in himself, something he should change in himself. I heard that Martin Luther King also got in trouble in school, but then learned how to turn that energy into something positive that helped him and his classmates find the best in himself. So yes, you’re kind of “in trouble,” but if we just punish you, you won’t understand what was wrong and what could be better. So that’s why we’re here talking. What do you think you did and how it affected the class and what do you think you need to be a better version of yourself?”
So they talked—eloquently— apologized sincerely, we helped them develop some simple strategies that will help them in the future (like choosing who to sit next to) and we all shook hands. And lo and behold, the next few classes were much better. And that’s a model for a new kind of detention that actually gets closer to the root of the situation.
And there are others. In San Quentin prison, hardened criminals are doing yoga to learn how to calm their mind and align their body, taking drama classes to learn how to express feelings in the proper container, engaging in discussion groups to share the stories that led them to where they are and imagine the stories that will lead them down a new path. Real rehabilitation. And note my Louis Armstrong series of blogs and the good fortune that 12-year old boy had to go to a Juvenile Hall that had a music program that changed both his life and ours.
A recent Facebook post highlighted a school where the detention room became a meditation room and the number of kids suspended when down from its current number to zero. It’s part of the new story that we’re all capable of making bad choices and doing wrong against our fellow humans and we are also all worthy of redemption. We all need to be held accountable for our actions—that’s our individual responsibility. We also all need help, skills, practices and new stories that help us heal our wounded selves—that’s the responsibility of the community. So from Prison Yoga to Restorative to Meditation Detention to genuine conversations with kids “in trouble”, the New Detention holds firm against evil deeds while attempting to help the evil doer.
One of the most powerful stories I’ve heard (whether true or not) was of a South African community that had a unique system for dealing with criminals. When someone transgressed against the community—stole, lied, cheated, hurt, murdered—the village put the wrongdoer in the middle of a circle. Instead of stoning him or her to death, they went around the circle one by one and each told a story of an act of kindness or goodness or comradery or laughter they remembered about the person. Can you imagine the effect?
In a time when so many of us can’t imagine how a Trump ascended to his present position, it is not too far-fetched that we helped it happen by refusing to refuse the ongoing habits of bullying unchecked, wrongdoing excused, transgression punished with an equal measure of violence and hatred. That’s where the work of healing will need to begin.