I’m reading this book right now titled The Art of Growing Older. It’s compelling—so compelling, in fact, that I walk down the street reading poems about aging on my way to work. Admittedly, I use my hands to hide the title as I do so. As a 22-year-old, I figure most people who see me with it would think that I’m a hipster, a know-it-all, or an anxious wreck. At times I guess I’m all three of these, which explains why I don’t want people to see the title.
So why am I reading it? I wasn’t so sure when I first picked it up. But as I’ve read, I’ve come to realize that I want the elderly to provide me with some comfort, perspective, and community through the trail of losses that I’ve experienced this year. Let me rewind to the beginning of September when, within two weeks, I lost a third of my Jesuit Volunteer Corps housemates, my first real boyfriend broke up with me, my dad’s law firm went under, and my girlfriends from college (still living together) all started drifting apart. On top of all this was the general pain of leaving college last year and losing all sense of my identity as a student. Loss, as well as the instability it engenders, was quite simply everywhere. Like the elderly who watch their future slip away into the past, I felt like I was losing everything.
The loss I have experienced, though, pales in comparison to the reality of many others. Not that loss should be measured in comparisons, but I can’t help but notice the depths of pain that I have thus far escaped. The elderly artists writing in this “Growing Older” book have experienced so many losses—of vitality and life—multiplied far beyond my imagining. And it isn’t only the aged that have experienced such great pain. As I walked to work this morning my thoughts turned to another group of persons: the youth that I serve through my work, children in adult prisons serving life without parole.
There are about 2,500 people currently in US prisons who have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. I am faced with each of those realities every day in every paper on my desk and every file in my computer. They will die in prison. A child who went into prison at age twelve, fourteen, or even seventeen. This is an unimaginable, complete loss. It is, in a way, a premature aging. Like the elderly in my book, these kids have lost all sense of possibility and future. They feel discarded by society, as everyone waits for them to die.
A few months ago, I worked on an educational presentation about this sentencing and struggled to figure out how to convey the reality of this loss. I eventually realized that my words could not pack the same punch as those of the people who live it, no matter how well-crafted. So I try to tell their story though their own words. As one inmate, George, says, “I’ve been locked up since 1994 and have spent a third of my life in administrative segregation (23 hour lockdown) and I’m only 33 years old. It’s been rough and for the majority of that time I’ve felt like the world has forgotten about me.” And then there’s Michael, who explained, “As time passed I made myself strong so that my family would not worry about me. But when you lose so much and you know that it’s truly gone you can only hold on to the ledge of hope by your fingertips.” And then there is Kristofor, who admitted, “Twenty-six plus years of incarceration have taken their toll. Hopes which once gave me strength have become tenuous, worn down by the erosion of time.”
Well damn. What response can I give to those words? Those are losses I can’t comprehend, even though I am close in age to some of the writers—the loss of human interaction, the loss of youth, the loss of dignity and recognition, the loss of time and freedom, and the complete loss of hope. These losses are so big. And those are just the losses that I can identify from the letters they send me.
So loss after loss after loss builds up. How do I get through the losses I have faced in my personal life along with the pain of recognizing the loss I witness all around me? Without simplifying, romanticizing, or trivializing it, what do we as a society do to feel such despair, yet rise on?
In reading the lamentations and elegies of the elderly writers, I have been frustrated by their hopelessness and their inability to offer an answer. It is pain without purpose, loss without life. Their words seem short-sighted to me. I know that I am young, probably naïve and woefully ignorant, but loss, I think, can offer more. This is not to say that loss experienced as a result of social injustice should be excused away and resignedly accepted as a life lesson, but loss, no matter its origin, can often be a moment of growth in faith for those of us persistent enough to believe in God or something beyond our imagining. Like Job, the man in the Bible who loses everything but still proclaims, “after my skin has been thus destroyed, then inmy flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side,” the physical holes left by the loss of tangible love, dignity, and life are most permanently filled with the spirit, like a rush of air into an opened vacuum.
Loss is why over the past several months I have spoken to God with more truth and need than I was ever able to muster before. Loss is why, for the first time, I even understood why someone would choose to be a nun or a priest. Loss is, I believe, how these elderly people, despite their feelings of impotency, found enough spiritual meaning to write such beautiful words. And loss should compel us as a society to acknowledge the need to stop sentencing children to life in prison without parole.
We must stop acting as if an eye for an eye is justice! Christ came and proclaimed something bigger than that. These children serving life without parole took lives, yes, and that crime and pain cannot be ignored. It also cannot be erased. Not by killing these youths, which the United States was doing until 2005, and not by locking them in prison until they die. “Justice,” in the words of restorative justice teacher Harmon Wray, “takes victims’ needs and rights seriously, yet insists victims’ rights not be reduced to a right to have the state take revenge on behalf of victims. Instead, it empowers victims, offenders, and the local community—the primary stakeholders in any crime or other conflict—to engage in face-to-face dialogue and make decisions about what must be done to ‘make it right.’” And maybe making it right isn’t even possible. Maybe it’s about confession and reconciliation, accepting that loss can’t be erased and moving forward despite that. Maybe it’s about moving forward saying, “I can do better,” even when we’re not sure that we can.
Faith is by definition to believe in things unseen. During moments of intense loss, when the world is dark, we must have faith that light and restoration also exists if we are to move on from the pain. We must then, if we are to move on from social pain, also have faith that all of us who commit terrible crimes can do better. This faith takes different forms for all of us—faith in God, faith in a church, faith in optimism, faith in simply a better moment than the present—but faith is what fills our holes. In my trials at the beginning of this year, I found it a struggle at times to believe in something beyond what I was experiencing, but like exercising a weak muscle over and over again, my faith was eventually strengthened.
Now, with many of my losses receding from my mind with time and new opportunities, I am left with a stronger faith in what lies ahead of me. My memory of having overcome the despair of loss and doing it with both tears and smiles—that strengthens me too. I hope that as a society we can also begin to expect a world that is better than it is now and seriously reform our justice system. In the face of loss, many times we are left with only a sense of unending anger, bitterness, and despair – I hope with all my heart that instead of allowing ourselves to lose hope, we can instead reclaim our faith amidst our losses, from those as preventable as an unjust prison sentence to those as inevitable as aging.
Emily Dillon is a 2012 graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park. She is currently a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and is serving for a year as outreach coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.