“That was when I realized I was losing consciousness. All right then. At least I had held on long enough to do some good.”- Lauren Olamina, from Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower
Today at work, my patient’s husband was a prison guard on Riker’s Island. He told me about his job. The prisoners on Riker’s are often kids that get into toxic habits and instant gratification. Gangs, crime. The more perverse your offense, the greater your respect on the island, he told me.
“I’m having fun with it,” he said. “I was an electrician first. When you’re blue collar, you try to get a good pension for your family. I’m pretty grounded in my morals and beliefs, so I do well with the kids. Some of the guards use an excessive amount of force, but it’s not as bad as it was. That said, some of the officers really should watch their backs on the outside.”
“When I break up a fight, the kids pretend to hate me, but later they thank me, especially the weaker ones. They don’t actually want to fight and I give them an out.”
“This is my second career. I’m not taking this job that seriously. But I like it. I think I’ll leave the place a little better than when I found it.”
As he spoke, I wasn’t really listening. I was focused on getting out of the room. Getting my work done. Only now, pouring over these memories of the day, six cups of tea deep on my porch, the meaning and beauty of the story gets to sink in.
So often, our consciousness is closed. It has to be, I guess, so that we get work done. But sometimes, we have to chip through the eggshell of goal-orientedness that surrounds our brains and let the beams of light stream in.
In zen, a koan is a question where the answer is not words, but a state of awareness. The awareness, now, is the lighthearted, practical attitude of the guard, and of Lauren Olamina as she is bleeding out. The guard is doing what he can in a deeply troubled world. That’s the journey we all take. Hopefully at the end, when we lose our consciousness, we can all have the feeling that we’ve held on long enough to do some good.
The photo is from a small wedding I had the joy to attend a few months ago