by Kenneth Justice
~ Yesterday at coffee a woman nearby me spilled sugar on the table which suddenly prompted the stranger sitting beside me to say, “Every time I see white powder on a table I can’t help but think of cocaine”
“Excuse me?” I said
The older man continued, “Oh sorry, that probably didn’t sound right. I’m a retired judge and I worked in drug court for the last thirty years of my career“.
Since I spent last year working at a drug rehabilitation clinic we cross-referenced a few names and it turns out we had some mutual acquaintances.
“You’d think a drug court judge would be really tough on criminals wouldn’t you? But I’ll tell you something, when I was in my forties my younger sister got hooked on heroin and it changed my entire perspective on life. I knew that jail would not help her and it made me realize that sending drug addicts to jail probably wouldn’t help them either” he said.
What really stood out to me about our conversation was that his sister’s heroin addiction helped to humanize all of the faceless people that stood before him in court all those years. You see, its really easy to pass judgment on others for addictions, shortcomings, or what many people call ‘sins’ that we ourselves don’t struggle with…….but when the heroin addiction occurs within our own family; we start to realize that we are no better than anyone else.
Its easy to snub our nose toward the homeless, the divorced, cheating spouses, alcoholics, or fill-in-the-blank when we ourselves don’t struggle in those areas……but when all-of-a-sudden we find ourselves late on a mortgage payment, drinking too much alcohol, cheating on our boyfriend, or about to file for divorce….we suddenly see that those faceless people we walked by for so long are no different then ourselves.
Perhaps I am guilty of drinking too much coffee and getting hung up on things that are irrelevant…..but the more I observe Western Culture the more I begin to believe that there is a general dehumanization that is occurring all across Europe and the Americas. Too many people who are healthy and satisfied…..are not seeing the faces of the people who are sick and hungry. While some people enjoy record profits, earnings, and big paychecks……so many other people are struggling to scrape up enough money to make their house payment.
When I spent time working in the local jail, I was given a firsthand glimpse into the lives of the people at the very bottom rung of our culture; and what surprised me the most was that they are no different than you or I. While many of the men and women I met came from broken homes…..many of them came from good families, many of them came from the suburbs, from affluent areas…..just like the Judge’s sister; they are no different than you or I.
Are we headed to being the same world that Charles Dickens lived in? As I wrote over the weekend; Dicken’s lived in a time when the people at the bottom of society were ignored and despised. He took it upon himself to give faces to those who were mistreated and displaced……he gave a face to the faceless.
I’m not really sure where we are headed as a country. Many days I wake up and don’t see any visible signs of improvement. Too often people appear to be bullheaded in their desire for nothing to change, “leave me alone to live my life, don’t bother me with the problems of society” is the attitude of so many people.
“So how is your sister?” I asked the Judge.
“It is a tragic story” he said, “I took it upon myself to pay for many different treatment programs and after years of rehabilitation she finally overcame her heroin addiction…..but she never gave up alcohol. One day I received a phone call that she was in a coma at the hospital, she never woke up. She died at the age of 51 from alcohol poisoning….she drank herself to death”
While the story of the Judge’s sister was indeed tragic, he spent most of the time in our conversation telling me about all of the success stories he experienced as a Judge. Many of the young men that came to him should have been given heavy sentences according to the letter-of-the-law; the Judge should have given many of them life in prison…..but instead the Judge broke the rules and would set them free. Years later he met with many of those young men who are now living successful lives and have wonderful marriages and children. “Had I given them life in prison I would have destroyed their lives…but instead I gave them hope” he said.
I’ll be honest with you. When I was growing up I did not have a sister who was hooked on heroin. I was very blind to much of the world around me…and I regret the many years of my life that I ignored what life was really like for the people at the bottom and for the people who lived next door to me. While I am still relatively young, I am embarrassed by the callousness I displayed for so long…..its difficult for me to even write this as I tear up over the may years of my life that I wasted on triviality.
I simply don’t want to waste any more of my life….is that too crazy of a thought? For now, I will have another cup of coffee.
Categories: People Without Faces