Rehabilitation has been a theme in both my work and personal life lately. Rehabilitation has to do with the belief that a habitual human being can make a change in their life. They can break the mold of their past: genes, family, friends, vices, culture, etc.
In case you didn’t know, we can literally change our genes. A simple example of this is… let’s say you are born with the gene that gives you lung cancer but you choose not to smoke, you can turn off that gene or keep it from turning on with your decision not to smoke (one of several decisions that could affect this gene). We not only have our own unique genetic code, we also have switches for each set of genes. We can switch our genes on and off depending on our choices and experiences.
The whole nature vs. nurture debate is dumped on its head when we consider this. Not that we can magically have a gene we were never born with, but we can reinvent ourselves by our actions and experiences. This is why I believe that scientists have found that genes have a lot more to do with criminal behavior than culture or upbringing. What they may be failing to recognize is that our experiences can change our genes, switching them on or off. We can also rewire our brains by breaking and reconnecting neurons based on our experiences and how we choose to respond to them.
This is why some children that are victims of molestation can become child molesters in adulthood, while others become fearful of sexual intimacy and/or sexualizing a child. This is why some boys who are exposed to violence during their upbringing can become violent when dealing with difficult situations, while others become passive or depressed when confronted with a conflict. These are just two extreme responses one can have to those traumatic experiences.
Imagine the trillions of sets of genes on the planet that make up each individual and the multitude of experiences and reactions those individuals can have… The possibilities are endless.
But there are patterns, because we are social creatures with many similarities. We are also creatures of habit. We are pattern seeking as well. That is why we have the social sciences to try to better understand the confusion we have about human behavior.
There is a lot of misinformation about this topic. It is not easy to “change our genes” or to “rewire our brains.” I know from personal experience and from reading sociological journals – where study after study discusses the complexity of social problems and how we can fix them – that it is an internal battle with external obstacles.
Where is our compassion for the human condition? It is easy to be on the outside looking in. It is easy to say what you would do in a situation if you have not experienced it. It is even easier to assume that you would know how the individual felt in that situation if you did experience it.
I have been to many counselors. Many of them would say, “Wow, you have experienced a lot. You had two parents that were physically abusive. A father you watched physically and verbally abuse your mother. You were molested. You were indoctrinated. You were psychologically and verbally abused. You moved all over the country. You taught yourself at times, because your mother was too depressed to homeschool you. You were in private schools, public schools. New schools every year. You were bullied in elementary school for being different and being the new girl. You were sexually harassed by boys from middle school into adulthood. Your mom was an alcoholic when you were 12 years old, after years of being severely depressed. Your mom left without saying good-bye at age 14 years old. You had to leave your father’s house because he neglected you by staying out all hours with different women and stalking your mother. He also became more physically abusive to you after your mother left. You moved in with your grandmother who was also psychologically and verbally abusive. You moved out at age 17 and struggled financially. You were raped by a close friend when you were 20 years old. Etc… You have done so well and have such a good head on your shoulders, in spite of it all.”
What most people do not understand is that I struggled every day as a child to keep my sanity. I still struggle. I am scarred by my experiences. It takes me reaching inside and outside of myself for help every day to move forward. I had many opportunities to make the wrong decisions and sometimes I did. I broke the law. I drank too much. I acted out. During a period of time, I stopped being responsible. I skipped school in high school. I ran away. I changed my hair, my identity and sometimes even my personality to get away from the pain.
I was born lucky though. I was given a strong-will, an unconditional love for people, the ability to forgive, a survivor instinct, the ability to learn and adapt easily, verbal and written communication skills and an intellect that could see things objectively. Most of all, I was given hope and the ability to visualize what could be, instead of focusing on what was. I did not earn these. They were gifts I was given. I was suicidal at times, and I almost gave up many times. But my will to live and have my life mean something always won. I had good friends and mentors. I had access to knowledge that encouraged me. While there was abuse in my family, there was a lot of intelligence and resources. I had faith in something beyond myself.
Am I special because I am not a high school dropout? Because I could have been… Am I special because I did not go to prison? Because I could have… Am I special because I never became an addict? Because I could have… Am I special because I never got violent? Because I could have…
I almost married a Mormon when I was younger, and I converted for him. I had known him since I was 14 years old, and he supported me during the trials in my youth. I did not make a great Mormon, so we parted ways. But there is a Mormon scripture that has stuck with me since that time in my life, which I think applies to what I am writing here:
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have…” (Mosiah 4:19)
Early in the scripture it talks about loving one another and giving to those in need. It says that we should not withhold from those in need because they are at fault for the condition they are in. According to the scripture, it is a sin to judge others and not help them because we think they deserve what they are going through or that it is justice. We are supposed to help them anyway.
Whether or not you believe in God or have a religion or spirituality is not important. Sometimes nature, experiences or other people can be god to us. We are not always responsible for the punishments or rewards we receive. We are not always in control of what happens to us. We are not always in control of our brains or our genes and how they react to what life throws us. We can do our best to use the resources we were given to overcome our challenges, but at some point in our lives, we all need help.
I am not saying you should help others to the detriment of yourself. I am saying that you should help others, because you were or will be helped. Whether you were born with good genes, had a teacher that inspired you, a loving parent or friend, a God that gave you comfort in prayer, a brain that wouldn’t quit, a heart that persevered, etc. You overcame because of what you were given. I am not saying it did not take an effort on your part or that it was not difficult. But you could not have done it without the gifts that were given to you.
In my mind, rehabilitation depends on how much help you have, inside you and outside of you, in spite of the obstacles that get in your way. You have no control over what you are given. You can only work with what you have. Control is the only thing we never have. We can only act to the best of our abilities within the context we are bound by.
Next time you think… “He won’t ever change. I went through that or my friend went through that and they never acted like him.” The next time you think… “She is getting what she deserves. She doesn’t deserve sympathy or a second chance.” The next time you think… “I would have never done what they did.” Think about what you have and what they have. Think about the times you failed because of the lack of internal skill or external support.
Think of what you would give, because are we not all beggars? I believe we can change by being grateful for what we are given and giving what we have. Rehabilitation is difficult, but possible, and it takes a society willing to love and help one another to make it real.
Evil exists. But it’s love that prevails.