I saw a movie recently that got me thinking again about my own white middle-class life, especially in relation to that of the black man whom I write and visit on San Quentin’s death row. The movie was about two families in Chicago: one the white, affluent family of the architect who designed the high-rise projects on the south side of Chicago; the other an impoverished black family living in those projects. The two families’ lives begin to intersect when the black mother goes to see the architect, hoping to convince him to sign her petition to have the buildings torn down so that low-income housing better suited to human needs might be built.
Both families are in a lot of pain. I thought of what I know of Andre’s growing up in South Central L.A., and of my own growing up in small town Indiana as the daughter of a pianist and a physician. I thought of how life can be so different, and yet so much the same—so much the same, and yet so different—for different people, and of how I really have no idea why that is.
I don’t believe it’s just that we get what we “deserve.” I also don’t believe it’s just a matter of one’s “karma”—that things happen as they do in a person’s life because of things they’ve done (thought or acted upon.) How could I believe that the long-term torment of my sister’s mental illness is simply the culmination of her own choices? Or that the court’s failure to overturn Andre’s sentence and conviction, blind as it is to so much of the reality of his life and of who he is, is simply a consequence of what he’s done? I think things are much more complicated than that.
I do believe, though, that the spiritual reality which we call “God” is somehow loving us through it all, and trying to draw us closer—trying to help us know the heart-rending beauty, the tender ravishment, of it all; seeking to break our hearts open to compassion for all living things.
So much of what I’ve profoundly and achingly desired in this life has not been given to me. Surely that is at least as true of Andre as of me. I can’t imagine living year after year under the tight restrictions, the violence and deprivation, of prison life. Yet he and I share one opportunity equally. We both have the opportunity to continue to grow in love; to learn better how to love; how to both give love and to receive. Maybe that is really the only opportunity that matters. It is also one which no one can take away. No matter where we are, or who we are, we have the opportunity to grow in love—which, I do believe, is also growing closer to God. And really, what else is there? We’re told the joy and peace of union with God surpasses all.
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