Michael Vick -- and us

So just when I am thinking "enough with Michael Vick already, everyone has already said everything that can be said way too many times", I receive the following e-mail: 

Dear Dan,  I spent thirteen years working for the Federal Prison Service in various administrative positions from maximum to minimum security. I do not excuse what he did, but he did eighteen months at a maximum security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas with bank robbers, drug dealers, and people serving time for very serious federal crimes.  He was probably in barracks of four hundred other inmates, told when and what to eat, where to work (yes, everyone has a job) for pennies a day, when to wake up and go to sleep. And maybe the worst part of it all is the great shame of having your loved ones having to travel to prison only to see you in these circumstances.  It's all so very humbling, as it should be.  Its part of the price one pays for committing such a terrible crime.
Dan, he was twenty-seven; does he pay for this for the rest of his life?
People do change; I have seen many people living under these very isolating and humbling experiences wake up and realize what they have done.  And then I have watched them return to a community only to meet scorn and rejection.Why are we so vengeful?  Can't we rid ourselves of this anger just for a little while to see if this works? 

Dear Peter 

Rid ourselves of anger?  Sounds great, but it doesn't come very easily, if at all.  Anger has been called a judicial emotion -- a reaction to injustice.    People who are divorced are often angry because of the sense of injustice as are people who have been traumatized in some way.  People can become angry as a result of social injustice like poverty or political oppression. Our angry reaction to injustice helps protect us from feeling the deeper wound of loss and helplessness.  Some use the anger to reinforce a sense of victimization, resentment or self-pity.  But others are able to use a wider lens and use the anger to pursue a social justice
 What Michael Vick did to those dogs sparked a kind of outrage because of the horrific injustice perpetrated on those innocent animals.  In a way, the outrage is about a very human instinct to protect the vulnerable.But as we all know there is a very dark side to all of this outrage, and you touched on it when you used the word vengeful. Revenge and justice are two very different things.  Justice is about righting wrongs, revenge is about inflicting pain.

The important question is not about Michael Vick and what he deserves or doesn't deserve, it's not even about whether he is sincere in his stated desire to do the right thing.  The important question is not about him at all, it is about us.

 Peter, what you have attempted to do in your letter is to help us understand Michael Vick's experience in prison in hopes that understanding may lead to compassion.  Several years ago I wrote a column about four words that I felt could change the world. I felt, and still feel that these four words could cut down on divorce, help heal the wounds of trauma, and even help diminish international conflict.  Those words are: Tell Me Your Story.  Look someone in the eye and say those four words and just be quiet and listen until the other person is done.  That alone could change both of you. Just imagine how it would feel if someone who didn't fully understand you uttered those words.  But a little more is required for mutual change to take place.  When we listen to that story, we must do so with an open heart and simply imagine that story is ours.
 My daughter is an animal rights activist and has been most of her life.  She doesn't believe in killing any animals for any reason, she is vegan and does not wear leather.  So you can imagine how angry she is that Michael Vick was signed by the Eagles.  She was even angry at me when I said "let's see." 
I wonder what would happen if someone like Ali and someone like Michael Vick could sit across from each other and exchange those four words.  I don't know about his history with animals, but Ali might hear about how he was one of four children born to unwed teenage parents in a very violent drug infested housing project in Virginia.  That he did whatever he could as a child to escape the violence.  Perhaps she would hear more about how he experiences himself and his life back then, and in his heyday three years ago -- and now.  And what would happen if Michael heard than the Ali grew up with a mother who had cancer and a father who became a quadriplegic and was hospitalized for a year.  That her only real solace from her losses was with animals that she was able to love and loved her back seemingly without risk.  That she has devoted her life to caring for these critters and trying to make their world safer.  Perhaps she could tell him what animals mean to her.  And perhaps he would understand.  And perhaps then she would.And if we could eavesdrop on that dialog, perhaps then we would understand.

Of course I understand that his internal barometer of right and wrong might be damaged beyond repair.  Ali might look in his eyes and see that nobody's home as he tells a story he really doesn't believe.  His heart and his mind might be closed permanently.  But does that mean ours has to be?  After all, outrage and righteous indignation closes our hearts.

Maybe he is hopeless.  But then again...