I wondered why these men were so uplifting to know; I asked everyone I was acquainted with who had ever worked in prison as a teacher or volunteer what they thought, and they all had exactly the same feeling I did, though they were hard put to know the reason.
In my case, some disparate elements came together to form my understanding of this surprising phenomenon: a Buddhist gentleman named Alan Marker, a murderer, a computer and a High Holiday sermon.
Now, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar. These days are called the ‘days of awe’ because observant Jews have an awesome task to accomplish: T’shuvah, which means ‘to turn around’.
To explain, I will use the analogy of driving a car. On the road of life it is relatively easy to drive along unconsciously, especially when we set the cruise control. In this state of unawareness it is quite possible to miss our turnoff and miss our target destination. I was once told by a Jungian Catholic priest that the root word for sin in Latin means “missing the mark.” Sin isn’t only a matter of light and dark or good and evil, it also means that we made a mistake on the road of life and got away from our aim. We aimed our arrow but missed the mark.
So, what do we have to do? We have to turn around. A lot of energy and awareness goes into turning around. First, we have to wake up and become aware that we missed our exit. Then we have to be observant and look for a safe place to turn the car around. Even slowing down takes energy and awareness, because a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Going back requires time and patience and the potentially painful recognition that we will likely not reach our destination when we hoped.
This is what happened to the murderer I mentioned above. He ‘missed the mark’, he woke up and he saw that he was traveling in completely the wrong direction. He forced himself to slow down and he turned himself around. Prison often serves as a very painful reminder that you will fail to reach your destination when you’d planned, if you reach it at all. In the case of this former criminal, he’d missed the mark at age 18 and the turning and subsequent journey took him 17 years before he reached his own goal -- freedom and a good life.
It is true that not all prisoners do T’shuvah, but the ones that do become special. This explains why everyone who comes into contact with redeemed prisoners respects them and cares about their welfare.
In prison, T’shuvah is accomplished through taking advantage of programs in the arts, getting a GED, going on to college within prison walls, practicing self-awareness and kindness, getting retrained in a trade, attending drug education and parenting classes, as well as prayer and introspection.
The former criminal I am speaking of did all this and much more. He graduated with a BA in performing arts from Bard College while incarcerated; in prison he wrote plays that were performed by other inmates and one of his plays is being produced off-Broadway this year. One week ago he achieved his freedom just in time to attend a reading of the words he had written behind prison walls, spoken now by professional actors.
When an individual has accomplished T’shuvah in the extreme, people want to help. Of course, upon release, most former inmates leave prison with very few possessions and not much money and what a professional playwright probably needs most in the world outside these days is a computer.
And that’s where the Buddhist and humanitarian Alan Marker comes in. He donated a computer to the playwright in the service of his turn-around. This is how Alan (of Alan Marker’s Computers in Stone Ridge) puts it:
“A few years back I realized that wounded soldiers who were coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq to recovery in VA hospitals were not given the chance to get on a computer and communicate with their families, or see pictures of their own children they’d never met -- they had been forgotten. I decided to buy and refurbish computers for the vets. I spent $30,000 on these computers. I also wanted them to watch movies, play games...anything to take their minds off the horrors of war. I opened a computer store to raise money, get old computers and refurbish them. All of a sudden I was getting requests from all over the U.S. and indeed the world.
“We put on benefit concerts to raise money and have computers donated, and told people when they bought a new computer not to throw the old one in the dump but to give it to me. I have donated over 1,000 computers throughout the U.S. and countries like Nepal, Tibet, Haiti, Pakistan, the Gaza strip, wherever they were needed. If I could help, I would. We all have to pitch in. We started a Pay It Forward project -- if I help one person a day and the person does the same, we can change the world.”
In addition to T’shuvah, which is to be intensely pursued during the ten day of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (but certainly not just restricted to those days!), Judaism -- as well as most great religious and spiritual traditions -- asks us to help ‘repair the world’ (in Hebrew it is named Tikkun Olam). Mr. Marker is doing his part by restoring computers and giving them away. Now, talking about ‘nuts’, this could certainly be construed as such, at a time when American greed has reached crisis proportions.
There is so much that appeals about turning around in this deep way, which by its very nature often means using ‘the road less traveled’. But what if everyone did T’shuvah? There would be a highway overflowing with cars, each with a human spark inside -- people turning away from greed and power obtained on the backs and at the expense of others, turning away from war, violence, self-interest, racism, gossip avarice, fear, anger, bullying, pride, polluting our world, callousness, stupidity, arrogance, hatred...a magnificent traffic jam of slowly moving vehicles finally going somewhere together.