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It has been an enlightening experience for me to become engaged in our church's prison ministry and to hear the stories of many of the people there. I've learned so much about what happens to the human brain and body when we experience early childhood trauma.

There are so many children born into communities haunted by violence, crime and drugs. Places with substandard housing and schools, void of beautiful parks and trails. Where their parents have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables because the only stores are convenience markets that sell junk food. Where children are likely to experience abuse -- physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse -- during the vulnerable time when their brains and bodies are developing. And when these children of ours fail to thrive, when they see drug dealing or demeaning sexual transactions as their only path to security, when they act violently as the only way they know to solve problems, we tend to blame them. We send them to prison.

Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that failed to produce fruit for three straight years. The owner said "Cut it down!" But the gardener objected. Give the tree the same chance as the other trees in the garden. Dig a trench around it and put rich manure on it.

Translating that today would suggest investments in at-risk children's communities, including infrastructure and public schools, access to healthy food, affordable health care and good jobs. Give all kids the same chance to live to their fullest potential.

People want to do their best. It is innate in us. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and God's spirit in us energizes us to try our best. I am convinced that nearly every person is doing the best he can, given the limitations of his history and experiences, his capacities and resources. If we could understand fully the heart and mind of others, I think it would change the way we think of them and open our hearts to compassion.

Some time ago I visited with an older man living in an extended family arrangement of three generations. He was frustrated with his son-in-law, who was unemployed and spent most of his time in front of video screens. The son-in-law often yelled at the kids, which angered my friend. But the youngest child, an adolescent son, seemed particularly fond of his dad, and the older son, now at adulthood, wouldn't think of leaving home because he felt nurtured there. My friend said of his son-in-law, "He's worthless. He contributes nothing and only mooches on the rest of us. I don't like him, and he doesn't like me." But whenever my friend would bring up to his daughter her husband's deficiencies, she always cut off the conversation immediately. "If he goes, I go."

I knew the son-in-law, and I didn't like him either. But on intuition, I asked my friend what he knew about his son-in-law's childhood. Horrible, he exclaimed. The boy's mother was injured during her birth and was never normal. His father left when he was about 5, and there was a string of unhealthy men in and out of the home thereafter. Drugs, sex, violence, noise. The boy was abused also. Neglect was relief for him. That's how he was raised.

So, I suggested, look what he has accomplished. He is a now faithful and loved husband. No drugs. Other than the occasional raised voice, no violence. No raised fist. No abuse. When compared with what he learned -- how he was taught to be a man, taught to be in a family -- he has made an exponential jump. Yes, in many ways he's not a particularly productive person, but what evolutionary progress he has achieved from what he inherited.

I suggested this to my friend: Whenever your son-in-law starts to bug you, think of that little boy. You can empathize with that little boy growing up in a chaotic, abusive home. If you can empathize with the child, maybe you can let the man off the hook. And if you can let him off the hook, you will free yourself from the choking resentments and angers that diminish your life.

There is too much anger and too little compassion in our society today. We are quick to blame and slow to create healthy communities supporting productive lives.

We need to be better gardeners, creating the rich soil that nourishes each person so everyone has a chance to live into their full potential.

Commentary on 03/08/2016

Print Headline: In the beginning

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