I’d like to invite you to do a little experiment in empathy with me. Imagine yourself to be one of several children in your family. Now imagine that your younger brother is shot dead in the streets near your home. Try to imagine, if you can, what happens to your heart, your mind, your Mom, and your siblings. Try, if you can, to imagine that your brother’s death was preventable and that the person who killed him will go on living. Can you feel anything at all? And if you do, is it a tidy group of feelings? Do you feel you can trust the world at this point? Do you feel that you are safe? Do you believe that your mom is able to keep you safe? Do you wonder if somehow you should have or could have done something to stop your little brother from dying?
When I worked my way through these questions I found myself feeling heartbroken, crushed, empty, full of despair and rage, unmoored from my sense that the world has rules and that I can trust in my environment, the people I know, and those who are supposed to keep me safe.
Why am I asking you to do this? I’m asking you to do this because I want you to feel more connected to one of the young people I had the privilege to get to know during the Summer of 2018. For this child, and she is a child of just thirteen years, this is no thought experiment. It is her reality. Her little brother died in a shooting incident. And right after that her world and her beliefs about the world were transformed into a bleak and unforgiving environment. It’s not a very happy experiment is it?
She acted – as we all do – from her beliefs and from within that quagmire of grief surrounding her. Those actions led to a child spinning out from this kind of trauma and grief landed her in jail. Why? Because she broke the rules by acting from that space.
For me the most devastating aspect of this process was revealed to me through the simplest of comments. This young lady asked me if her twin sister could come to our program for the last day. She wanted her sister to be able to see where she was, what she had done, and to go out with her in the boats. It was to be a day of celebration. She said to me: Can I bring my sister? A court representative overheard her request and replied, no. She said to me: She’s not bad like me, she’s the good one. She wouldn’t be any trouble. Imagine believing this about yourself; that you are “the bad one.”
What we believe about ourselves is what we become. Much of what we believe, we are not even conscious of. But the young lady had become the bad child.
I looked her in the eye in that moment. I could see she believed it. But I could also see that she did not want to be that, and she did not want to believe it. There was still a glint of hope in her eyes.