“As long as you are there, I am there with you.”
That is a line from the very first letter my father wrote to me in prison. He proceeded to write me a letter every day for the next fourteen months.
My story is one of redemption. It is the story of a family who extended love and mercy, rather than well-deserved malice. It is the story of a father who loved his son enough to write him a letter every day he was in prison. However, just like every story of redemption, it came with a tremendous fall.
My senior year of high school, I was arrested for crimes I committed. I made choices that caused a seemingly endless spiral downward, leading me to act irrationally. I formed addictions and habits that culminated in criminal activity and subsequent arrest.
I made the choices. I went against the things I had been taught through childhood. I caused pain to my family, friends, and the several victims of my crimes. I made the choices.
However, after tragedy struck and I was in prison, my father went to work on me. He could not take me out to lunch or call me on the phone, so he wrote me letters. He expressed his love and taught me about being a God-respecting man in those letters.
I have felt compelled to share this because I am afraid we have developed a bad habit in society, and I may have something worthwhile to offer on the subject.
Whenever tragedy strikes, whether it is the latest school shooting, a police shooting, or opioid crisis, we deliver undeserved blame.
It’s the guns.
It’s the NRA.
It’s the police.
It’s mediocre drug counseling.
It’s insufficient border security.
It’s the president.
Everyone has their argument. Every argument is logical. Everyone making the arguments claim they have it right and can prove it. Then come the solutions.
Take away the guns!
Sue the NRA!
Protest congress and the president!
Train white people on their implicit bias!
Protest the police!
Give more money to the government for drug counseling programs!
Beef up border security!
However, each argument and subsequent solution, in my humble opinion, misses the mark.
Tragedies happen. Tragedies happen because we are imperfect people. We make choices. Some of those choices are good. Some of those choices are bad. Some of those choices only have personal consequences. Some of those choices have societal consequences. That’s life.
If we made gun ownership illegal, would we see a decrease in gun violence? Maybe.
If we provide implicit bias training to law enforcement, will fewer minorities be arrested? Maybe.
If we provide government funding for drug counseling, will we see fewer fatalities from opioid overdoses? Maybe.
If we write more laws and extend government regulations, will that solve these issues? Doubtful.
It is common to observe phenomena, such as school shootings and drug overdoses, in statistical formats to understand them. We look at the “profile” of a school shooter or a drug addict, then attempt to minimize the creation of that profile through government action. In doing this, we call on congress to pass laws that will, supposedly, solve the problem.
However, these are not systemic problems requiring a systemic solution. They are personal problems requiring personal solutions.
We cannot pass another law or make another government regulation and expect that “action” to be the solution. We are the solution. Family, friends, and community without government are the solutions.
The many school shooters since Columbine were complex people, not machines. Drug addicts are complex people, not machines. We are all complex people with thoughts, desires, and choices, not machines. We cannot be programmed through governmental action the same way a computer programmer writes software code. Yet, I am afraid we are duping ourselves into believing that by passing such-and-such a law or such-and-such a regulation will somehow restrict the thoughts, desires, and choices of complex people. We may temporarily stave off consequences through government action, but it’s a temporary patch on a much larger wound. I am afraid we have duped ourselves into believing a systemic band aid will suffice for deep personal wounds.
I started this article discussing my own personal history. I developed some bad habits, made some bad choices, and broke some laws. I was justly arrested and imprisoned. Laws and regulations did not stop me from going to extensive lengths to carry out my crimes. I am certain it will not stop other determined individuals from committing their crimes either.
We are people. We have desires. We scheme up plans to fulfill our desires. Then we methodically carry out those plans.
This is not to say everything is doom and gloom. We are witnessing, in events such as school shootings, evidence of broken morals.
The family unit, society’s basic unit, is broken. Less than fifty-percent of kids are raised in the traditional two-parent household.
Therefore, we should not be surprised when tragedy strikes with increasing frequency. We should not be surprised by an influx of immoral and violent activity.
We can change, though. We can be better. We can fix our families. We can return to morals. I was a criminal, but I did not remain a criminal. I changed.
I stopped making bad choices. The difference came from my family. It came from a father who proved he loved me unconditionally. Then I was willing to listen. Then he, and my family, taught me how to be a man through letters.
In a letter my father wrote to me on October 3rd 2004, he said:
“It is said, in the Book of Mormon, that if all men would be like Moroni, then the gates of hell would shake. A man is someone who can shake the gates of hell. Be a man.”
For those unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, Moroni was a military leader who strictly adhered to the commandments of God. It was said of him:
“And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man; he was a man of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery.” (Alma 48:11).
The verse of which my father referred to in his letter reads as follows:
“Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.”
The next 400+ letters that followed from his October 3rd letter went about teaching me how to become like Moroni, a Christ-like man. Applying his advice led to me obtaining early release from prison, becoming a productive citizen, and serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where I helped others make positive changes in their lives.
Evidence of the good my father’s teachings brought into my life can be found in a letter written to me immediately after serving my two-year mission, just five years after being arrested and sent to prison:
“For all we know you have been released from your mission – in so many ways we hope not. You are a great missionary – still the example our children look up to. We have so much to thank you for in that.”
Becoming a Christ-like man, a moral man, a man like Moroni, a man who desires to shake the gates of hell with righteousness; becoming that man has taken me from a convicted criminal to a role model. This is the change that overcame me because of a father who loved his son and did not shy away from teaching his son to become a God-respecting man.
I do not share this story to be boastful. I have nothing to be boastful about. Following my own natural inclinations led me to addiction and prison. However, following the counsel of my father, casting away my own natural inclinations, I became a man.
So, might I humbly make the following suggestion? When tragedy strikes, instead of pointing the finger of scorn to places undeserved, ridiculing those who disagree, or believing that congressional action is the answer to our problems; instead of doing that, let us look inward for the answer.
How am I as a father or mother? Could I spend more time with my kids?
How am I as a husband or wife? Do I treat my spouse with love and respect?
How am I as a brother or sister? Do I talk to my siblings enough?
How am I as a child? Do I respect my parents?
How am I as a friend? Do my friends know that I care?
How am I as a neighbor? When is the last time I reached out to them?
How am I as a co-worker? Do I take time to understand what is going on in my colleague’s life?
What are my morals? Should I give God another chance?
Instead of trying to apply a systemic solution to personal problems, might we better apply a personal solution to personal problems? Might we do our best, while recognizing that bad things can still happen?
Bitter and angry people have rarely done any good. However, good and moral fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, friends, neighbors, and colleagues are responsible for the vast majority of the good in this world. We can do our part by becoming such and encouraging others to do the same. That is something we have complete control over and can start doing immediately.