Who am I? . . . a question, like a sinker on a fishing line, that takes you down, down into your depths. For Jacob, in front of a mirror, asking the question over and over again transformed his life.
Here is the story. Jacob gave me permission to share his story as long as I used his real name. He wants to claim it. Jacob is an inmate at Marion maximum-security prison and a member of our weekly writing group. As facilitator, my plan on this particular day was to reflect on transformation stories of other famous prisoners, e.g. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and my favorite, Victor Frankl. But before I knew it, our writing circle of five began to tell their own stories of radical change.
Jacob shared his. This is the setting: Jacob in “solitary” for thirty-four months with an hour a day for exercise and shower. A toilette in the corner, bare bed along one side, wash basin in the other corner . . . and a metal mirror secured to the wall. “Yes,” I thought, “mirror, mirror on the wall!”
For two years anger keeps him alive. He spends his little bit of freedom on outbursts of defiance, spewing abusive language with accompanying obscene behavior. “What happened at the two year mark?” I ask.
“It was that damn mirror on wall that got me,” he says. “It was ever-present, always there, as if staring me down. No where to hide. Over and over and over again, it keeps asking: “Who are you?” “Who are you?” “Who are you?”
Over time something happens. He calls it a miracle. I call it grace. Somehow through his mirrored encounters he begins to answer the question on deeper and deeper levels. From identifying himself primary as a criminal, as a angry person, as a complete failure at twenty-seven, he begins, with the help of his new Rastafarian faith, to identify himself as African. (His father, whom he never knew, was from Ghana.) He goes deeper still with the question — who am I really — beginning to glimpse himself as a cherished child of God. In telling the story he keeps repeating the words, “identity” and “home.” There is such mystery to his story, no clear step-by-step path to this deeper place. But no doubt about it — his presence, his spirit, his smile gives evidence of this profound change.
Since that day I have been pondering two questions.
First, why Jacob? There are many, many other inmates experiencing solitary confinement. And they, each one, have mirrors fastened to the wall. What was it about Jacob that led him to see in the mirror these deeper and deeper responses to “who are you?” Why do some — including us all — “get” grace, or better, realize “being graced,” but most people don’t? And why is it so counter-intuitive for any of us to sustain the awareness that our worth as pure gift, not our achievement? For me, there remains such mystery about how, with whom and how long inner transformation happens.
My second question is this. What if I took, as a spiritual exercise, looking in the mirror asking repeatedly “who are you?” Currently I only glance into the mirror, long enough to part my hair, wash my face and brush my teeth. I don’t like reminders of my aging. Now, because of Jacob, I am experimenting with lingering long enough to ask, “Who are you? Whom will you be today? From what identity will you live this day?”
beautiful and powerful story, Mahan. Thanks for sharing.
Yes, Mahan. I’m glad that your time with the writing group in the prison is filtering into your blog. Powerful stuff for us all to ponder…
Wonderful story. You got me thinking.
This reminds me of the story of a prisoner friend of mine. I met him because he was given mjy book Heart Whispers by the chaplain and the Benedictine way of life challenged him. He wrote to tell me that he began to see his cell as a monastic cell and allowed the rhythm of his days to become a prayerful living of the Rule of St. Benedict. His letters to me constantly give thanks to God for the transformed life he now lives.