21 June, 2016

Opinions Aren’t Like Assholes After All

When other prisoners see the volume of letters I drop in the mailbox, or note the frequency and length of my visits and phone calls, they often express a kind of low-grade awe. “I just don’t have that much to talk about,” they say.

This baffles me. How can you not have anything to say? I ask, and they always — always — respond in the same way: they say, “Nothing happens around here,” then run down everything they’ve done since waking up that morning. As if what happens in your day is the sole determinant of content in your personal exchanges!

Conversation, oral or written, isn’t reportage. It’s not an interrogation, either. Timelines are boring, and boring equals no friends. I tell my mentally constipated fellow prisoners that they need to dig deeper, roam farther afield (or even take to the air), if they want to escape the taciturnity shackling them. For an example, I invite them to share something they thought about in the shower, lying in bed last night, or watching the news. “Expound on those thoughts,” I tell them. “People crave others’ opinions, so give them yours.”

They glaze over. It’s as though I was urging them to norph spoot hibbledin eeb kronk. Weird, since we were speaking the same language a moment before.

I’d love to riffle through a bundle of correspondence from years ago and reread stuff I’ve sent out from here. How much line space have I devoted to institutional gossip, denunciations of prison food, or enumerations of environmental irritants that work their way under my skin like so much glass dust? It wouldn’t be much — less than I now spend writing friends about, say, my workout progress. Rather than reporting on happenings, I tend to opine. About everything. (I’m a very opinionated guy.) And maybe that’s where the difference between these inmates and me lies: I think critically and therefore have ideas. I’m not at the whims of circumstance, thoughtwise.

It makes me wonder how to effect a perspectival shift. How do you teach someone to think in a fundamentally different way? Awareness, of course, paves the way to change. But there also has to be willingness. The old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the light bulb must want to change) isn’t actually a joke at all.

Not everyone has the chops to be a writer or a fluent conversationalist. Not everyone can play in the NFL, either. This doesn’t mean that those avocations can’t supply examples for the average joe to model, for personal improvement. Life’s not a zero-sum game. Because of this, I’m sickened by unpopular guys bemoaning short visits and infrequent mail. “You have to give to get,” I tell deaf ears. They’ve already acceded to defeat. The tyranny of I can’t makes pathetic serfs of whoever bows to it.

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Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.