In the prison tearjerker The Shawshank Redemption we hear of Morgan Freeman’s character, Ellis Boyd Redding, encouraging a fellow inmate, Andy Dufrene (Tim Robbins), with a simple yet profound phrase: “Hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies”.
That exhortation proved to be prophetic for Andy who justifiably escaped as he was incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. He ended up in an idyllic beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, building a boat to spend his remaining days on an emerald sea.
Real life prison stories are, however, less than tranquil. The vast majority of men and handful of women who find themselves incarcerated often learn that the painful consequences of wrongdoing manifest even more severely upon their release. Society has little tolerance or compassion for people who made mistakes. Such is the fate of Tan Ah Meng, who witnessed close to five years of his life from the confines of a prison cell. In an emotional burst of fury he had committed arson against his own family, burning down the family home after a failed marriage, his third. Initially sentencedto seven years, he was deemed fit for release for good conduct after 4 years and 8 months.
Since his release in March he has sought employment as a security guard, trying hard to make ends meet. Home is in the form of a shack, providing comfort without solace.
The solitude of prison life was largely the result of a stroke which left him with impeded speech and the inability to use his left limbs. Comfort of human companionship was in the form of a church pastor who visited him during his confinement. Ah Meng signifies one who understood the pointlessness of remorse without restitution. The old tale of woe of bad company and bad decisions seemed to have relegated him permanently to a life of painful regret. Tears flow freely each time he describes the anguish of family separation, with his youngest daughter holding a special place in his heart. He constantly hangs his head in shame whilst trying to make amends, giving all of his meagre wages to his favourite daughter till this day.
If there is a silver lining in the tragic life of Tan Ah Meng, it is the simple fact that he has regained ambition; the will to do better, not just to survive. Incarceration and family separation have birthed in him a simple resolve to make good, and eventually find a home for his daughter and granddaughter. So has society forgiven him? He says he doesn’t think much about it, albeit with a distant look. Looking at the sorry sight of a reformed ex-convict suggests little else but the harsh reality of rejection and societal abandonment. This is natural perhaps, as people are unlikely to give an emotional response to people who suffered the consequences of their own mistakes. But identifying with another is an essential process of being human. The very nature of suffering is in its loneliness, which deceptively masks the deep personal anguish felt in persons like Tan Ah Meng. Most of us are able to feel deep sympathy for any form of misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. But sympathy alone is not enough. People like him need an expression of societal acceptance, devoid of judgment.
In short, all they need is compassion. Engaging with him on a personal level helped me gain clarity for my own personal growth. I saw how he periodically created suffering through his own beliefs, the habitual episodes he replayed and the emotional reactions that came from those replays. I was eager to help by pointing out his own mistake in alienating his own family, the numerous opportunities to restore his broken relationships with family members and the need to obtain a self-sustaining life. What I failed to realise was that I was in essence, the archetype of societal attitudes towards ex-prisoners, which is perhaps responsible for so many failures in post-prison rehabilitation. I wasn’t aware that I was merely serving my own conceptual idea of what he should be, instead of allowing him to discover the good that’s still left in him. By my own conscientious demands of what he should be doing now, I was now among the army of people with good intentions who were instead reinforcing his sense of personal rejection. True help would entail a different kind of compassion – the kind that requires us to be simply present with our attention focused on the manner in which people like Ah Meng perceive their own anguish; to remain silent and simply listen. I learnt that this actually sends a powerful message of acceptance. It challenged me to dissolve my own core beliefs about how people should be, what they should do and how they need to change. I needed to let go of my own artificial sense of success and behavioural standards that formed the basis for my own negative judgments towards people like him. Most of us are unable to respond to the suffering of others in this world without feeling some degree of sadness.
Our humanity doesn’t allow us to wear our own masks of emotional denial, disassociate ourselves from our emotions and say “No, it doesn’t bother me!” To be compassionate, we must each be willing to give up our own personal beliefs about being right or being justified. There is little difference between compassion and forgiveness, as both imply unconditional acceptance without judgment or expectation. Our reward is manifested in letting go of the superficiality of our own moral standards and what constitutes the rights and wrongs of others. In the end, the success or failure of any penitentiary system depends on our personal expression of love and compassion towards those who ask only for a second chance. And that is something that cannot be contained even in the strongest of steel bars surrounding a 6×8 prison cell. Hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies…
Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.