Top 4 Things I Learned in Juvi ~ Part 4 Most People Are Doing the Best They Can

When I was volunteering in juvi, the kids I spent time with ranged from dumb kids who got picked up carrying drugs for a gang to a few who had committed really heinous acts of violence. But we were never told what crimes the kids we worked with had been convicted of and we never came out and asked. I was warned going in that everyone in prison is innocent (because everyone claims to have been wrongly convicted). However, this wasn’t my experience at all. Maybe because I’m non-threatening and good at encouraging people to talk about themselves, but many times during some one-on-one time a kid would explain the particulars of the crime for which they were convicted. The few times I heard claims of innocence, it was accompanied by, “but I can’t complain too much. I did this other, even worse thing and just didn’t get caught. It’s not like I’m innocent and don’t belong here.” Over the course of a few years listening to their stories, I learned something important: most people are doing the best that they can figure out how to do.

Now, let me just say upfront that there are some evil people in this world. In fact, I met a couple while volunteering in juvi. But only a couple. These were people who hurt other people for no reason other than their own satisfaction. They didn’t even feel the need to come up with some justification for their behavior in their own minds. For example, there was one kid who confessed with a certain amount of braggadocio to having done something so awful, I’ve only shared it with one other person and don’t ever plan to speak it out loud again. The kid was a master manipulator and I think he had been lulled into complacency while talking to me by my quiet, non-reactive manner. But something in my face must have alerted him to the fact that he’d talked too much. He quickly made a very, very lame attempt to minimize the evil he had just revealed to me. But I hope the kid never saw the outside of a prison again. He truly had no regard for other human beings and looked back on his crimes with nothing but pleasure and smug self-satisfaction. Interestingly, he was also one of those kids who put on the biggest show of being a reformed choir boy.

So yes, not only is there real evil in this world, there are people who are genuinely evil. However, they were the rare exception among the kids I ran into. Most of the time when I listened to a kid explain what he did and why, I could understand how although what the kid did was dumb, wrong and even avoidable, it made sense to him at the time. “My buddy needed help carrying a TV out of this old, blind dude’s apartment so he could sell it to pay back this real bad dude he owed money to. I didn’t want to do it, but if I said no, I’d look like a punk. And where I come from, punks are a target. You can get killed for being a punk. So I felt like I had to do it.” Now, obviously a kid who thought like this wasn’t going to win any citizenship or brain power awards. And it could well be that he owed his buddy a favor for some dirt he had gotten him involved in earlier. But there was a certain kind of logic to the thinking that went into most of the crimes these kids committed. More often than not, to the extent that the kid had thought out what he was going to do, he had managed to convince himself, “if I don’t do this, some other terrible thing will happen to me.” So he did it.

As a general rule, these kids had not acted with any particular malicious intent. In their own minds and world, they were simply living life according to the rules they understood. Few had ever given any thought at all to the people who would be hurt by their actions. The fact that a rival gang member who got shot had a mother, sister, child who would be left behind to mourn his death had never entered into their minds. The ripple effects of the crimes they perpetrated didn’t register at all. Often, having to face a hysterical mother or weeping father in court during trial shook these kids out of their self-centered, delusional stupor. Other times, just having nothing to do but sit and think was what did the trick. If nothing else, the pain that their imprisonment caused the mothers, grandmothers and others left behind was often a source of a lot of guilt. Which was the other thing I heard a lot of: guilt.

Of course, coming face-to-face with guilt doesn’t mean that they were going to learn their lesson and leave a life of crime behind. Life is complicated. Their peer groups had an outsized influence on their behavior. Learning new ways of thinking and being in the world is hard for anyone. Some of them would probably slip into the realm of evil simply through repetition of evil deeds. But at the end of the day, over and over again I found myself listening to a kid who did the best that he could figure out how to do. With a bit of imagination and empathy, it wasn’t to hard to understand how a traumatized, unguided kid could end up doing the sort of things they had done. And I can tell you that anyone who is confident that they would never have done the sorts of things these kids did had they lived their lives is almost certainly fooling themselves.

Which is why the most important thing I learned in juvi is that most people are just doing the best they can figure out how. If it was true of a juvenile delinquent, then it’s almost certainly true of my lazy co-workers and annoying roommate and rude in-laws and the lousy drivers that can’t figure out how to merge and nearly drive me off the road. It’s for this reason that I have pounded into my children’s heads that you should always try to think of a reason for the things people do that doesn’t rely on some version of  “because they’re dumb” or “because they’re evil”. Those answers are rarely true and almost never helpful. When you understand that most people are doing the best they can figure out how, it’s easier to be tolerant and forgiving of what they’re screwing up. It’s a concept that has served me well over the years.

The previous installments in this series are:

Johnny Cash Was Right

The Uncle Problem

The Myth of the Spoiled Child

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3 thoughts on “Top 4 Things I Learned in Juvi ~ Part 4 Most People Are Doing the Best They Can

  1. Re your “truly evil” guy… Probably he lacked the imagination to feel either a) the full nature and meaning of his crime or b) how you (a person he was starting to see as sympatico) would understand it.

    Alice Miller did a case study of Adolph Hitler’s upbringing. A man who died, not only unrepentant, but full of fury at his own supporters for not bringing him endless victories, vainly ordering them to fight to the death because he hated them for their very vulnerability… What he’d endured as a child was truly ugly. We never got a chance to ask Hitler, whether he felt he’d been “traumatized”? But what he had gone through would likely have destroyed a saint’s capacity for empathy.

    The difference between “truly evil” and “morally dead” — in practice — is probably nil. You’d be just as safe hanging out with a wounded bear…

    but there’s a big difference in theological understanding. Has God made anyone truly “bad” and undeserving of our pity? — or are we all “sparks of God,” some of us “in danger of going out”?

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    • This kid was really stunted, in my estimation. He was really good at reading other people for a 15 year old and used to being the smartest person in the room which bred a good amount of arrogance. But he saw other people as mere actors in his environment for the most part. I was careful to be pretty non-reactive when talking with these kids, which I think was what let him forget that he wasn’t talking to someone who might relate to what he was telling me. He seemed to want to tell someone, maybe because it was a unique experience he had gotten away with or maybe because his conscience was bugging him a bit. But it was really, really sick. And not even what he was in jail for. The only thing I can think of that would be worse than what he did is cannibalism. In my humble opinion, no one is beyond hope, not even this kid. But any change of heart would probably require a good deal of time and life experience to even begin.
      My attitude when I was there was that our job was to just sow some seeds. Sometimes change was at hand, but the reality is that most of what we did was just helping to soften and water the soil for later. I think anyone who works with really difficult people needs to take a very long view and not expect immediate returns. Even when a person appeared to change, the odds were very good that progress wasn’t going to be a straight line.

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  2. Pingback: Judging Christians « The Upside Down World

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