As a young man in my 20’s attending college, I read for the first time the German poet Rainer Rilke’s letter addressing youthful angst. He wrote, “The future stands firm my son, yet we move in infinite space.” This statement always gave me comfort. As I have now been married 30 years and raised five young adults with my spouse, I better understand the meaning of those words. Throughout life, we take steps forward and backward, even sideways, and yet we are always heading towards a place that stands firm.
For me, the world is both complex and simple all at once. We may meander around for a while, yet we are moving toward that somewhere, that future—with purpose. Coming to The Fortune Society at 56 years old, for me, was like landing somewhere familiar— a place waiting for me to arrive.
Ten years ago, my grappling and eventual landing in the criminal justice system was like losing myself and finding myself at the same time. The love and connection I’ve had with my spouse, children, and a few close friends proved to be the powerful potion that saved me. This process allowed me to see how deeply my decisions affect the people I love most and the world at large. In effect, I found myself. As a result, I came to understand a few things. For example, we are never defined by the worst things we have done and that life is the teacher, not the board of education.
My work here as a group facilitator and discharge planner at The Fortune Society is simultaneously challenging, frustrating, meaningful, and deeply life-affirming. It reminds me of the connection between all human beings and certain universal truths. Our shared flaws are what make us whole together and when understood through empathy, acceptance, and experienced deeply, it is what ultimately unites us.
I often remind the young men I work with on Rikers Island that mistakes and troubles are what make us human. I remind them that change is gradual, incremental, and attainable. Reversing cycles of behavior is hard work and nothing good was ever achieved without it. This hard work eventually becomes easier with repetition and habit. The tools I use as a group facilitator and discharge planner allow for self-reflection and self-awareness that begins the process. Acceptance of ourselves, flaws and all, along with accountability for our behavior, creates room for change.
The people I work with at Fortune are challenged to model these behaviors every day. We demonstrate what communities can and should be because we embrace all individuals who come to us no matter what mistakes they have made or how many chances they need. We firmly believe in the abilities of formerly incarcerated people to thrive as contributing members of the community and we accept them despite their mistakes in order for them to begin and complete this process. We reflect back what we want to see in the world—a world that no longer marginalizes, discriminates against, nor hates others.
Finally, it is in the lifting up of vulnerable people where we find our deepest capacity for love and empathy. I believe that this is one way we express our civility and humanity — by building communities that prosper and taking care of our brothers and sisters. The process of helping marginalized people starts with kindness, gentleness, and trust. Often it is trial and error, even painful, yet we forge ahead because it is the firm future we strive toward.