Strength of Character

Written by Eric Burnham

Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not too sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I’m just one incarcerated man trying to overcome my past mistakes and make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good. Eric Burnham #12729124 Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution 2500 Westgate Pendleton OR 97801

January 14, 2020

Being incarcerated for any length of time can be a brutal, psychologically taxing experience. As of this writing, I am 40-years-old, and I have been incarcerated for 19 years, roughly 48% of my life. And while that may be eye-popping, it is important to remember that I am not the victim here. I hurt others, and there is no getting around that truth. My own behavior, my selfishness, my violence put me in prison. I deserve to be in prison, but I don’t ever want to be a man who belongs here.

My self-centered behaviors, my “doing” flowed from my inward state of “being.” I was broken inside. Only bad people consistently harm others in physical, material, and emotional ways. I was a horrible person — no singular act of violence led to my incarceration; it was a self-centered lifestyle that allowed violence and criminal activity to be acceptable, made increasingly worse by my self-hatred, which I self-medicated with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. I hated who I was, but I don’t hate who I am. I’m not the same person today.

During my journey, I have thought much about how a bad person can become a good person. Is it even possible? I think so. I believe people can change. I’m certainly not saying I have achieved such a monumental feat, but I have arrived at a few foundational conclusions about what having strength of character means, which is such an abstract and confusing concept that it can make my head swim. It is so difficult to define. It is also extremely difficult to find in prison.

Personally, I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again — that is a top priority in my life. And a long time ago I realized that accomplishing that involves not only putting off my old patterns of “doing,” but also putting on a new way of “being.” If I want to be a good man, then it is my responsibility to figure out what that means.

Although admittedly complex, I feel like the characteristics of a good man are fluid and flexible, while paradoxically remaining absolute and irreducible. Whether incarcerated or not, a good man exemplifies courage, honesty, responsibility, patience, tolerance, high standards, kindness, mercy, loyalty, integrity, authenticity, and honor. These are not specific acts of doing; they are traits that determine how a person will act and react. They involve being. And while this may seem an impressive list, they are merely words. What they actually mean is incredibly elusive and slippery. They may engender strong, positive feelings, but what do they look like in action? This has been a difficult question for me to consider.

For example, courage is often subjectively determined by one’s view of the situation. Yet at its core, courage is not paradigmatic; it is objectively defined, although its application or expression, perhaps, may be situational. Courage is a commitment to face a threat, rather than run from it. Yet, even threats are subjectively determined, right? I mean, I’m not really afraid to fight. Some guys are, but I am not. However, I am quite fearful of appearing weak to others. For some, a willingness to fight when afraid takes courage, but for me, a willingness to walk away takes much more courage.

Prison culture has warped values and twisted social norms. There are times when you must fight, but most often, you have a choice. Yet, to walk away often appears weak. To speak up against racism or to encourage others to find peaceful, non-violent solutions to interpersonal conflict can appear soft, a weakness to be exploited. Therein lies my dilemma — to be courageous, for me, runs against the values of my environment. Decorated U.S. Army General George S. Patton (WWII) has been credited with saying, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.”

Consequently, for me, physically fighting, using violence to appease my bruised ego, essentially failing to defend my values, is a cowardly act, a selfish act. Courage, then, involves the fortitude to keep from being shaped by prison culture while simultaneously being defined by it.

Honesty has similar elastic qualities. Honesty involves far more than simply telling the truth and not lying, right? I mean, we all know that annoying cat who constantly embellishes in order to impress others and garner affirmation, basically by force. But as a character trait, honesty requires acknowledging mistakes and taking responsibility for my actions, rather than relying on clever duplicities in an effort to avoid consequences. Honesty involves resisting the temptation to use deception as a tool in order to defraud others for personal profit. The fruit of honesty, over time, is being viewed as a trustworthy person.

In prison, I see incredible dishonesty all around me on a regular basis. Guys may be “honest” (so called) with their “homies,” but consistently dishonest with everyone outside of their immediate social circle, and even themselves, especially when caught doing something against the rules. In my opinion, honesty is not a situational ethic — it must be the standard. I don’t need to “rat” on anyone in order to be honest, but I do need to be real with myself and others about my own actions. If honesty is not the standard, I am ultimately incapable of having character free from deceit.

That leads seamlessly into the concept of responsibility. As a character trait, responsibility involves dependability, fortitude, determination, and acceptance of consequences. I would go so far as to say that responsibility is the hallmark of adulthood, the foundation of everything. A good man is responsible for not only himself, his words and actions, but also those in his care, his family, friends, and all those affected by his decisions, words and actions. A responsible man will, at times, be willing to sacrifice his own needs or desires in order to keep from negatively impacting others. He is also accountable to his own conscience and willing to answer for his behaviors, whether they are right or wrong. He readily acknowledges his mistakes and takes an active role in righting his wrongs.

I really feel like patience and tolerance go hand in hand — A man who aspires to be good will patiently seek to understand others before making judgments about people and situations. As a tutor in the Education Department, I battle my own impatience often when I teach a challenging student algebra, paragraph writing, or even the structure of the U.S. government. Most men in here are not as educated as I, and if I genuinely want to positively impact them, I must exercise tolerance. By patiently enduring their mistakes as they learn, helping them to be okay with the trial-and-error process of growing, I learn humility, and the ensuing tolerance transfers to my view of everyone who is different than I, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or educational/socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is not easy to set aside my personal biases in order to positively impact others. It is volitional, a choice, and I think the ability to do so flows from having empathy toward them. Others may think, feel, and act differently than I; they may have different beliefs or arrive at different conclusions about faith, politics, or reality itself, and to be okay with that requires not only tolerance, but also the kind of patience that fosters personal growth, knowing these differences do not threaten my own uniqueness.

I think a good man must have high standards as well. He will not always live up to them, of course, but he will do his best to adhere to his ideals. Standards of behavior, speech, and work ethic flow from self-discipline and commitment to growth. It is not easy to be a man of high standards, but it is easy to tell those who have them from those who do not. For example, I have seen cats in here erect personal standards for the explicit purpose of being seen doing so, creating the structure of their mask. Yet, behind the meticulously designed facade, they feel entitled to exercise no true boundaries, no morals, ethics, or universal code of conduct whatsoever. They are sharks who feed on others. I believe a good man refuses to do that. The outcome of a man without standards is both predictable and inevitable.

In my opinion, mercy and kindness run together as well. You cannot have one without the other. Mercy can be defined as entering into the experience of another and by doing so, feel moved to help. Mercy is love in action. A merciful man is one who stoops to conquer not only himself, but also another’s pain and suffering if he can. In prison, this type of kindness is very difficult to witness because it doesn’t happen much — it is just too risky. Genuine kindness recognizes the need for simple things like generosity, a smile, or even holding back bitter words, but it also includes the far bigger idea of not being emotionally or physically dangerous to anyone, which, in prison, is viewed as weakness to be exploited. Therefore, one must know how to stand up to the dangerous while being kind to the harmless. Mercy, in prison, is taking the time to know the difference.

Ahh… loyalty — what an overused word. Almost everyone wants loyalty, but so few are willing to give it in return. I think a good man is willing to pay the price for remaining loyal to his loved ones as well as his own ideals. Loyalty involves allegiance, an allegiance of commitment and faithfulness. When the inevitable conflict arises between loyalty to loved ones and loyalty to personal values, I feel like a good man would have the backbone to challenge loved ones about dishonesty or immoral behavior while simultaneously supporting them, which can be arduous and painful. Ultimately, however, loyalty to loved ones means not doing things that harm them and making sure they are protected, as well as playing an active role in ensuring that loved ones feel the comfort of that loyalty. Loyalty leaves no doubt.

Integrity is yet another murky, often misunderstood attribute. Not only is it the quality of having strong moral convictions, but it involves the ability to put them all together into blended functional properties that can be consistently applied. I can believe that courage, honesty, kindness, and loyalty are valuable traits, even admirable ones, but without the capacity for practical application when tempted to do the opposite, they are merely good ideas. It has been said that integrity means doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking. The only way to do that is to know what the right thing to do is — and to make doing it habitual.

A good man, with unquestionable strength of character, is authentic. There is no circumventing this. He is not phony; indeed he cannot be. He is comfortable in his own skin. Above I mentioned the mask that some wear — being authentic means not wearing a mask. A mask hides the beauty of the soul. Authenticity allows the unique beauty of the soul to shine into the world.

The dictionary defines authenticity as denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life. I view it as harmony between my inner life and outer behaviors. It is congruency of face — an authentic man is the same regardless of those around him. In prison, I watch so many cats alter their beliefs and behaviors in order to conform to those around them. To me, that inconsistency of character displays not only profound insecurity, but a distinct lack of personal identity as well, leaving them conspicuously untrustworthy.

Perhaps the most difficult trait to define, and therefore to achieve, is honor. Again, the dictionary holds honor to mean adherence to what is right, a morally upright standard of conduct. However, the term dishonor does me no favors when it comes to understanding — it means to have lost all claim to the good opinion of one’s peers. Consequently, I’m left to infer honor is defined by adherence to a socially accepted set of values. Yet, what those standards are depends upon the moral attitude of the majority. Then context matters, and in prison an apparent binary social code exists. One code is honorable to wider society and dishonorable among those encapsulated by prison culture; the other is honorable within the prison environment but dishonorable to wider society. That is how it is usually framed, but I don’t think it has to be so.

This squeeze between cultures can be a tight spot, making the formation of good habits difficult. The overwhelming majority of guys in here will choose the immediate gratification of acceptance within their environment. Yet, I want to be honorable, a man who epitomizes all the traits of a good man I’ve listed here, so the choice is clear for me. It is simple, but it is not easy. I am far from perfect, but I know who I want to be. And I’m finding more and more that striving to be a good man, even in prison, can be done. It is even respected when done right, with pure motives.

All this seems so idealistic, so utopian, doesn’t it? However, this type of strength of character exists in the world. It is not a myth. The very fact that it seems to be is evidence of how elusive truth and goodness have become. Good men exhibit these traits everyday, albeit imperfectly, but to be imperfect while straining for excellence sort of captures the human condition, does it not? And those men who strive to live up to the ideals described here inevitably enjoy a deep sense of justice, purpose, and self-respect, which in turn, garners the respect of others. Imagine professional athletes: They never stop chasing perfection, never stop working to get better. Good men pursue truth, love, and hope with a contagious zeal that impacts everyone around them in unfathomable ways.

While not intended to be exhaustive, I hope this writing has conveyed effectively my thoughts about not only what it means to be a genuinely good man, but also how difficult it has been for me to understand just what that means. I know right from wrong, to be clear, but I’m talking about more than that. I’m talking about impact, transformation, and giving back. A man who only consumes and never gives back is most certainly a nickel out here looking for a dime. All the negative traits I observe in prison moves me to constant personal reflection in order to root out any of them I see in myself. After all, I am in prison, too, encapsulated by my environment just like everyone around me. I guess it’s true what they say: The same boiling water that hardens an egg softens a potato. It all depends on my response. And where I stand does not have to depend on where I sit.

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