The first black boy I ever looked in the eyes was already in prison.
He was 19. I was 21.
We sat across from one another, a foot between us, eyes closed, as the facilitator gave us the following instructions:
“Decide who is A and who is B.”
“This exercise will be done in silence. No talking, no laughing, no touching, no smiling or other facial gestures.”
“A, keep your eyes closed throughout the next part. Your partner will be looking at you. Now B, open your eyes …”
I open my eyes and study the young man before me. With his eyes closed, he looks more like a boy then a man. Light brown skin, medium height. Handsome.
“Look at this person in front of you, who has the same desire you have to feel good and safe and loved, who has your same will to survive … the same desire you do to make sense of his or her life … Take this rare opportunity to look at this person without embarrassment …”
We are in a Minnesota correctional facility. I am here volunteering. He is not. I am a Senior at Carleton College, a semester from graduation. But this program has created a space where we can, for a moment, feel our true equality.
Look into his/her face; you may see clues that reveal traces of sadness, hope, fear, loss … like having loved someone who died, or left … We’ve all experienced these things, so find it in your partner’s face … Then realize that it’s in your face too … and it’s all right … See all the common experiences you share … of being hurt, of being lonely … of feeling shame, of being scared, of feeling worthless, of praying for help … of feeling guilty and ashamed, of looking for some kind of relief, some kind of peace … moments of joy, pride, satisfaction, and of the yearning we all have to love and be loved.”
We are both participating in an organization called the “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP). This organization was founded in the 1970’s through a collaboration between the Quakers and inmates at Greenhaven Prison in New York. The inmates there were, “ concerned with the ‘revolving door’ they clearly saw in their institution. Youth were appearing in prison for fairly minor offenses, only to return (sometimes multiple times) for increasingly more serious and violent crimes.” They were desperate to try something different. Their lives had been characterized by violence. They longed for peace. So they asked themselves who knew how to make peace…the answer was the Quakers.
See that your partner is like you … and appreciate that s/he trusts you enough to let you look at him/her while his/ her eyes are closed … What a gift! And realize that s/he can trust you — and you can trust him/her, because you see how much the same life is for both of you…
One of the most profoundly surprising things about AVP is the egalitarian power structure. One might assume that the instructors and facilitators of the program are the volunteers who have come into the prison to offer advice or guidance, that the students and participants in the program are the inmates. But I sit across from my partner as his equal. He may teach me. I may teach him.
… At a real level you know this person … s/he’s just like you … So allow your heart to soften and your compassion to grow as you recognize these things in your partner.”
For whatever reason, my partner and I shared an immediate affinity for one another from the onset of this two day seminar. So when we moved into this exercise called “Human to Human,” there was no question that we would choose each other as partners. Move through this powerful experience together.
“Now B, I want you to give your partner the greatest gift you can give him or her: I want you to keep looking at him or her, with total understanding … total forgiveness, total compassion for all that s/he’s experienced … for anything s/he could reveal to you … Whatever stupid, violent, ugly, shameful, crazy thing you could find out about him/her. You understand, don’t you? … Show him or her you understand through the power of that divine love in your eyes … Allow that compassion to beam from your eyes so that you’re bathing him/her in love … You don’t have to “try” to do anything; just relax and get your ego out of the way and let divine love shine through your eyes.”
I’m a crier. This has always been. When I was a child it was a source of constant embarrassment and vulnerability that I couldn’t hide the hurt of every slight, couldn’t hide the compassion for every creature. So now, as a grown woman, I sit across from this young man with tears in my eyes. It’s not pity. It’s love. Love for him. Love for humanity. Mourning, perhaps, the circumstances that divide our lives.
“Now A. what I want you to do now … before you open your eyes, is to bring to mind those things in your life that you want to let go of … all your burdens … your loneliness, pain, shame, fears, hopelessness, weariness, your secrets … all of it … Be prepared to let them all go. Because you can do that …
Now. I want you to open your eyes and look straight into the eyes of love across from you …
My partner, I suspect, is not a crier. But as we are given permission to see each other, gaze at each other, love each other unfettered, if only for a moment, he too begins to fight the tears that will betray his own vulnerability. I see him swallowing his emotions.
Receive the compassion, understanding and forgiveness that are there … You can let go of those burdens now … all your pain and shame and secrets … Surrender it all into the eyes of love … Let it all go. Your partner understands … S/he really does … You can allow him/her to see the real you … maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to be seen by anyone …maybe for the first time … Because it’s OK.”
I feel compelled to do all things we’ve been trained to do in the face of pain. Smile. Reach out. Look away. But I don’t do any of these things. Neither does he. We have committed to face our humanity in this moment, and neither of us break. Together we are courageous.
After the experience, we are allowed some time to process, but we both struggle to know what to say.
“When you looked at me…” my partner begins, but doesn’t finish. The question is implied.
Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?
“Now, both of you close your eyes. We’re going to switch roles.”
Were it that easy.
After this experience, I walk out of the prison back to my life. My partner does not. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my last AVP experience. I intended to do more. Intended to come back. But I had friends to tend to. Classes to finish. Life offered me other paths. My degree opened other doors and opportunities.
He remains behind. He is my equal, his life as valuable, but our constraints cannot be exchanged.
I have thought of him often. Could never forget his face. His eyes. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot his name.
It was not until this winter, in the wake of Ferguson, that a powerful compulsion came over me to remember his name. To tell this story. To tell mine. Because our story is not our own. Somehow, ours is America’s story. America’s Incident. America’s Tableau.
“Now, for just a minute. sit and just look into each other’s eyes, with no games, no pretense, no power trips, no staring competitions, no roles at all … without your act, your front, your present. Don’t smile or make any other facial gestures. You can relax and just be you and just human beings on the path, who have recognized each other.
I began pouring through my journals from college. Certain that somewhere within them I would find this young man who I carried with me. As I read various entries, I moved through this potent time in my life of deep loves, deep thinking, deep failings. I brought these journals with me over winter break.
One night I could not sleep. I left the warmth of my bed and in the darkness of my Great Aunt’s farmhouse, I once again delved into the past looking for that moment. Searching for him…and then, there he was. I found him.
“Before you close your eyes again, give each other some nonverbal expression in appreciation for what you have just experienced together. “Now close your eyes. Feel that experience you just had. That deep sense of your common humanity. of the goodness that’s there in each one of us …”
I close my eyes and weep again. Lance. I’d found him again. Found his name. Loved his name.
Immediately the power of it struck me.
Lance: An instrument of attack. A method of healing.
America’s story. Our story.
Like the trust lift and the trust leap, this exercise calls for a huge amount of trust and community feeling in order to succeed. If the group has not built up that kind of environment, it will be uncomfortable to say the least, even traumatizing perhaps and probably should not be done. Since the exercise can be very powerful for people, we often schedule a break right afterward so they can have some silent processing. After the break, re-gather with a sharing about their experience of the exercise.
His name may be a symbol, but he is a man. A real man. I don’t know where he is. Don’t know where his life took him after that experience. I wish, though, he knew I carried him with me. Into Baltimore. Into St. Frances Academy. Into public schooling. Into diversity training. Into a degree in conflict resolution. Into Kibera Slum in Nairobi Kenya. Into parenthood. Into this moment.
America needs all her children.
Needs us to face ourselves.
Needs us to sit across from each other,
then eyes opened.
Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Human to Human”
Purpose: To have an experience of Transforming Power, of our common humanity, and of the goodness within each of us. To experience empathy and trust. To learn to see self and others more clearly, beyond the masks.
Time: 30 to 40 minutes.