If I could talk to Jahar, I would tell him about urge surfing. I would ask him to imagine standing on a beach watching as the waves come in and crash on the sand. I would ask him to watch as the water goes back out to sea, leaving the beach calm again.
And I would explain that urge surfing is based on the principle of that image. Urges, emotions, desires, temptations … they come racing toward you like a wall of water, building and building like a wave does.
The urge to kill yourself, the urge to kill someone else, the urge to lash out in rage, the urge to give up: they come like waves, rushing at us, scaring us to death with their intensity if we don’t know, if we don’t remind ourselves that in about a minute or less they will fall apart and be gone like a wave going back out to sea. We only have to stand there and hold still for that long, doing nothing but imagining ourselves on a surfboard, riding the wave when the urge, the feeling, the wave is at it’s peak and knowing we will reach the shore still standing. And the water will return to the sea… taking the urge with it.
I would tell him about urge surfing.
If I could talk to Jahar, I would tell him how to create new neural pathways in his brain for thoughts to travel on. I would tell him how wonderfully simple this is.
I would ask him to say “I can do this.” Then I would ask him to say it again. I would explain that each and every time he says that to himself, a pathway is created in his brain for that thought to travel on and that pathway gets stronger and stronger the more he says it.
I would tell him that his brain will “hear” this new message and begin, rather quickly, to believe it: that he can handle solitary confinement and whatever treatment they can dish out.
I would tell him to say this phrase, putting emphasis on different words each time:
“I can do this!”
“I can do this!”
“I can do this!”
And soon he would be doing what I eventually did when I learned to use this coping skill, changing it up. Soon he would be saying “I am doing this!” And he would have another weapon in his arsenal against the avalanche of pain, fear and hopelessness constantly threatening to bury him alive in his cell.
So I would tell him about creating neural pathways.
If I could talk to Jahar, I would tell him about the dump site at the end of my apartment building. It’s toxic. It is beyond disgusting. I am sure, from the unchecked accumulation of filth over the years, that every disease known to man must live in that blacktop.
But beyond the dump site there’s this field. It’s beautiful. The field is surrounded by trees on three sides and people walk their dogs back there. I would tell Jahar that on a day like today, when the garbage doesn’t smell and the sun is shining and a wonderful autumn breeze is blowing, I can stand on the 3rd floor landing of my falling-down apartment building, and look past the ugliness of human filth to that beautiful field just beyond the trees.
And I would tell him that life is like that. We often find ourselves having to look past what is closest to us, ignoring sights, sounds, smells… to a vision of beauty in the distance.
I would tell Jahar that one day, the in-your-face ugliness of life can be suddenly and unexpectedly removed because miracles still happen, God is still on His throne, and He still has a plan, even for him.
So I would tell him about the field and the parking lot.
If I could talk to Jahar, he would want to talk about religion. I would try my best to get out of it. I would tell him I hate talking about religion more than almost anything.
But he would insist. So we would talk about religion.
When it was my turn, I would tell him that Muslims and Catholics have something in common. I would remind him I used to be Catholic, born and raised in a strongly Catholic family, so I’ve lived what I’m talking about. Then I would tell him how both religions are based on receiving eternal reward for earthly performance. I would tell him that both religions teach that you can not be sure of your eternal reward, where your performance in this life will send you, until you get there. I would tell him adherents of both religions believe their path to God is the only way.
Then I would tell him about Helen Keller.
I would tell him how her teacher, Annie Sullivan, tried again and again, with limited success to break through to a child who was full of rage, being deaf and blind due to an illness she suffered at the age of nineteen months. I would tell him how Annie would spell the name of an object into the child’s hand as she had her simultaneously touch the object with her other hand. I would tell him how fruitless this exercise had been.
Then I would tell him about the water scene by reading an excerpt from the autobiography of Helen Keller:
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two.
In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.
I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word “w-a-t-e-r,” first slowly, then rapidly.
I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.
On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
And I would tell Jahar that the moment when Jesus becomes real to you in this life it is like that… whether you are living in a palace or a prison cell because no matter where He finds you, Jesus still comes with one purpose: to set captives free…
Then maybe we’d just sit and be quiet for awhile.
I’m willing to bet that the next time we talked, it wouldn’t be about religion. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the next time we talked, it would be about Jesus, the One who said of himself “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me.”
Then Jahar would do all the talking, telling me, with great joy and amazement, about his own encounter with the man called Jesus, who had not only walked on “w-a-t-e-r” long ago, but had now entered the prison cell of one condemned to die and gave him “w-a-t-e-r” to drink with a promise that Jahar would never thirst for love, comfort, companionship or anything else ever again.
And the silence that followed would speak volumes.