All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned In Prison — Chapter 2

Here’s another first draft for you.  I have concluded that one of the biggest obstacles to my achieving any success as a writer is my utter disdain for revision.  I like writing first drafts and then moving on.  I think it’s ADD.  Anyway, here’s the next chapter.  If you have no idea what “next chapter” I’m talking about, read the Introduction (click here) then read Chapter 1 (click here).  When you’re done, come back and pick up Chapter 2.  One of these days, I may just put all of these on one page.  As always, I value your comments, good, bad, or indifferent.

Chapter 2
Speaking The Language

                              I said to the man do you speak-a my language?
                              He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich

                                                                                      “Land Down Under”
                                                                                      Men At Work

Let me let you in on a little secret. When at a minimum security prison, the worst thing besides separation from one’s family is boredom. This is not the “there’s nothing good on TV tonight” boredom or even your typical “as interesting as watching paint dry” boredom. We’re talking about “I’m willing to try anything once, even crocheting” or “let me sleep 23 ½ hours a day” boredom. You see, in prison you have time. Lots and lots of time. With that kind of time, you have two choices: allow your internal wiring to be reworked so that you embrace the lackluster life, in which case you quickly become the intellectual and social equivalent of a box of wet hair, or find creative ways to keep your mind occupied. I went with number two.

So, I began to do things I wouldn’t typically do on the outside. I read a lot, I watched people a lot, I listened a lot. And I learned a lot. One of the first things I began to do was to study Biblical Greek. I figured that it would be time consuming and let’s face it, I had plenty of time to consume. I also thought it would be helpful to learn the original language of the New Testament of the Bible in order to better my understanding of scripture. It did and it has. It turns out that the hours I spent with a textbook, dictionary and Greek New Testament were worth the effort.

The more I studied Greek, the more I noticed the importance of understanding language when trying to studying a new subject. I wanted to learn more about a document originally written in Greek, so I studied Greek. Having “only” a 20 month sentence I only had a short time to learn about prison life and culture. So, I embarked to learn “prisonese.” It was enlightening to say the least. I quickly picked up on the nuanced uses of the word “minute”, an indeterminate length of time, usually used to convey the passage of a long period of time. I learned that “down” refers to the state of being incarcerated and that “hit” describes the state of being on the receiving end of a bad situation. So someone who “has been down for a minute” might be “hit” if his appeal fails. I discovered, thankfully, that “to feel” someone isn’t nearly as risqué as it sounds, meaning only “to understand” what someone is saying and that the phrase “that ain’t for you and me” expresses the speaker’s displeasure with whatever it is I have just said (as does the related expression “I thought you and me was better than that”). You get the picture.

Had I not endeavored to learn the language of my environment, I would never have fully appreciated what went on inside (or understood half of what was said). You know, life’s a lot like that. We often get so caught up in our own little lives, we become myopic about the rest of the world. We fall into our comfort zones, associating with people who look like us, who talk like us, who think like us, who have similar backgrounds as us and we never venture outside the walls of our safe havens. Then, when we are forced outside (or in my case, inside) we are adrift on a sea of unintelligibility and unfamiliarity. It is only when we proactively decide to “learn the language” of the world we engage that we begin to communicate effectively with it.

It is refusal to “learn the language” that stalls a great many efforts of people to engage those outside their group. Conservatives talk about “bleeding hearts” without dealing with the issues of “social justice” espoused by liberals. Abortion rights advocates cry “choice” without addressing the issue of “life”. Evangelicals insist on using the language of King James to evangelize a post-modern world whose cultural identity is more closely aligned with Kurt Cobain than with Erasmus. In short, one group talks about apples while the other talks about oranges.  Have you ever wondered why foreign missionaries learn the language and customs of the people group they serve?  Chances are you haven’t.  It seems almost self-evident that they would learn about their mission field.  How else, short of supernatural intervention (which I in no way mean to dismiss), could they hope to share the Gospel?

The fact is, you cannot engage those not like you or even challenge those with whom you disagree unless you understand them. This was evident to Sun Tzu 2500 years ago. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter III, Paragraph 18). I do not mean to imply that people different from you are necessarily your enemies, but it is clear that in any engagement outside of your comfort zone, whether you are a missionary spreading your faith to another group or a participant in a debate over navel lint, the effectiveness of your attempt is directly related to your understanding of the other person (and yourself. We’ll get to that in Chapter___).

After about six months in prison, I no longer felt lost…or bored. I took the time to learn the language. It was largely because of that effort that I was opening up to the other lessons that God had in store.

[There’s more, I just haven’t been able to write it, yet.  A victim of my own ADD, I’ve moved on to subsequent chapters.  I’ll get back to this one…eventually] 


3 thoughts on “All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned In Prison — Chapter 2

  1. Since I’ve already commented on this chapter on a previous post from your other blog, I won’t completely recycle my remarks. However, I still find it a fascinating concept to think of American Culture as a separate language and, to a certain extent, people group. That thought adds a certain freshness to learning how to best reach them with the Gospel in a way that resonates.

    As a side note…if we ever DO wind up in a debate over navel lint–can I play the part of the “Dryer’s Advocate”?

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