The Invisible People and Inherent Worth

Have you ever visited people who are in a maximum-security correctional institution?  After going through many secured doors, there you are with some people who literally never will walk out of those doors.  In one of my visits to such a facility, I sat with 10 men who recently went through a forgiveness program.  I was eager to hear about their experience with it.  They liked it.

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What struck me the most, actually, was not their kind and positive response to the forgiveness program, but instead was their view of who they are to other people. “Once you are in here, you become invisible,” one man asserted.  The others perked up at this point and agreed with the statement.  “We are invisible” was the resounding theme.

It seems that this proclaimed idea was deepened by the forgiveness program, in which each man learned about, and thought deeply about, an important tenet of forgiveness: We are all persons of worth, not because of any bad behavior, but despite this.  Each man learned this and applied it successfully to those who deeply abused them while they were in childhood or adolescence. Those who hurt them have worth despite the cruelty.  This view helped them to forgive and to shed clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression.

Despite the encouraging findings of mental health improvement in the men, some people might wonder: Is it possible that the forgiveness program had a negative effect on them?  Here is what I mean: By studying the vital idea of the inherent worth of all people, these men might now become sad or angry that others are not necessarily treating them with this kind of built-in worth.  In other words, might the forgiveness program have accentuated this negative situation for them, leading now to the view that they are “invisible” to others and further to the view that they definitely should not be treated this way?  The contrast between who they truly are as persons (which is persons of worth) and how they are viewed and treated by others might have become more clear because of the forgiveness program. Yet, I do not see this as a negative for the following four reasons.

First, the forgiveness program did not create the awareness that they are “invisible.”  It may have clarified this, but the idea already was in their mind.  I say that because, in relating their stories to me, they shared that they were aware of this reality soon after entering the institution. Second, with the forgiveness program, they learned this: Even if people do not treat them as persons of worth, they now can treat themselves as persons of worth.  Third, they now have the tool, forgiveness, to forgive those who treat them as less worthy than who they really are.  Fourth, those who have learned this lesson of forgiveness can now be supports for one another as they show each other this: We are each valuable; we each have built-in worth.

As one example of extending inherent worth to others, one person said this to me: “I am never getting out of prison.  Yet, I now have a new purpose which is to help my cell mates learn to forgive.”  He developed a new purpose in life after a forgiveness program.  He has made a commitment to easing the pain in others……because he sees that they have inherent worth and are worthy of emotional healing from what they have suffered in the past.

We need to widen our view of those in corrections.  What can we do so that we see their inherent worth?  What can we do to communicate this to them, without the error of extremism by falsely claiming that, because of this worth, they now can be fully trusted outside these walls and should be unconditionally released?  In other words, we do not want to make the philosophical error of equating worth with unmitigated trust and therefore call for the release of all in correctional facilities that actually might keep others safe.

Being “invisible” is hard.  Knowing deep down that one has infinite worth, despite this treatment by others of being ignored, can protect people from the lie that they have no value.  Forgiveness can restore a person’s sense of value even when others look away.


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