In this Advent season, I share this personal experience to encourage people who wait in hope.
It’s a story about Vince (not his real name), an inmate at Handlon Prison in Ionia, Michigan, where I regularly co-teach a Calvin University course in Christian Leadership.
Vince is the only student in my teaching time at Handlon that I have found somewhat intimidating. Each class period he would walk straight past me with no greetings to the very back corner of the room where he sat with a body posture that shouted, “Just try to teach me something today.”
My story about Vince comes from a class session on emotional intelligence. I’ve been talking about the importance of emotional intelligence with seminarians and pastors for decades. It is well-known that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of vocational success than verbal or mathematical intelligence.
I love explaining the four features of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. I always observe that the first three features of emotional intelligence are intuitive to most people. But relationship management? How can we “manage” relationships and particularly other people’s behavior by our own emotional intelligence? At best, that’s confusing; at worst, it sounds manipulative.
I am especially conscious of the uphill climb to explain relationship management in a prison system where the idea of relationship management can seem like a cruel joke. So, as always, I slowed down and carefully explained how the main way we manage relationships and impact other people’s behavior is by remaining calm, by not reacting to anxiety in the relationship or the system, and by staying differentiated, to use the big twenty-five cent word. But these are all fairly abstract concepts. I was not sure I was getting through.
And then out of nowhere, Vince spoke from the back of the room. He said, “Yeah, you’re right about remaining calm. In fact, when I figured this out, it changed my life.”
He went on to explain, “When I came here, I was one angry, bad guy. Everything and everyone set me off. It didn’t take long for me to end up in the hole.” The hole is the worst place to be in a prison, the ultimate punishment for bad behavior — solitary confinement, no privileges, the only human interaction being the times a guard brings food to your cell.
Vince explained how the hole, already the low point of his life, was made worse by a particular guard who knew how to pull Vince’s chain. The guard would loudly clang the bars of Vince’s cell whenever he brought Vince’s food. And like clockwork, every time the guard clanged the bars, Vince would erupt in an angry tirade of obscenities. The more the guard clanged the bars, the more Vince erupted. The guard was literally driving Vince crazy. And both the guard and Vince knew it.
Until, Vince says, “One day something dawned upon me: Maybe my reaction is the problem. What if I didn’t react? Let the guard clang the bars. What would happen if I didn’t react at all?” For three weeks he silently endured the guard clanging the bars. At first it killed Vince inside to not react. But then, by mentally preparing himself, it got a little easier. And then, one day, the guard didn’t clang the bars. And then, a week or so later, the guard even said something to him.
Eventually the guard actually became humane to him, engaging him in normal conversation.
When Vince remained calm, didn’t react, and stayed differentiated, his relationship with his guards changed. Vince went from being crazy to being human. His guards became more human too. His entire prison experience has been better in recent years because he has more emotional intelligence by which to manage the fraught relationships of a prison system. The class on emotional intelligence only gave Vince words to explain what he had learned all by himself in the hole.
In my life, on the outside, my idea of patiently waiting in hope is just missing a green light and having to wait the entire 75 seconds for it to turn green again. Vince had to wait three weeks, hoping against hope that maybe there was a better way to live his life than he had been living it. Actually, a lot longer than three weeks. And he is still waiting, two years since that class and five years since the hole, trusting that there is a better way to live, experiencing glimmers of hope now and then, little slivers of humanity.
Vince inspires me to seek a calm and grounded spirit, even when that’s difficult, and to trust that it will bear fruit.
“We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.” Psalm 33:20.
prisoner photo by Donald Tong