Who Deserves Second Chances?

Meeting an ex-con reformed criminal type that’s now leading a life full of hope and meaning is cause for deep admiration. But what if we met them while they were indulging in reckless, bad, or even utterly deplorable behaviour? We’d write them off as scourges on society, people to lock up and avoid forever. Who wants to think about rehabilitation and second chances? We revel in their punishment and take pleasure in seeing them suffer for the way they’ve wronged the world.

Recently, I learned about Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll, a convicted murderer who has spent the better part of his life in jail. Despite his dark past, he is living an inspiring story of redemption, all from within the walls of San Quentin State Prison.

These stories inspire us. They lift us up and warm us from the inside out. We tell ourselves, if this guy can turn his life around even after all his mistakes and hardships, I can do it too! It really is beautiful to see someone go from rock bottom to flying on top of the world. But it’s only after they’ve changed that we appreciate their struggles and forgive their transgressions.

Yes, there are monsters that are beyond forgiving, people that could burn to ashes and you wouldn’t shed a tear. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would give Jeffrey Dahmer or Hitler a second chance, for example. But setting those exceptions aside, ask yourself: “Am I so different? Am I really a ‘better’ person? Would I have made the same mistakes if I were in their shoes? How have my circumstances shaped my journey?”

What if the person Carroll murdered when he was a teenager was a loved one of yours? Could you appreciate the person he is today and feel inspired by his message? What if you met Carroll after he murdered your loved one but could peak into his future as a changed man – how would you feel? Could you forgive him?

I realize this post raises more (uncomfortable) questions than answers – I myself don’t have the answers. Questions about how fundamentally different I really am from criminals and misfits have been flitting about in my mind like butterflies for years.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the great Maya Angelou from her 1995 interview with Linda Wolf for IN CONTEXT journal:

“Well, I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. Only the angels, the cherubim, and about three rocks don’t make mistakes. You’re going to do that.

But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “I’m sorry,” to the people who you think you may have injured, and then you say to yourself, “I’m sorry,” and then you can like yourself again.

Quite often if we hold onto the mistake we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror, so we can’t see what we’re capable of being. It is equally important to see the mistake and to forgive oneself for it. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.

I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now when a larger society sees you as unattractive, as a threat, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat, or too sexual, or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.”

Learn more about Curtis Carroll and his philosophy on financial literacy.