In Voltaire’s A Philosophical Dictionary, there’s the question, “Can a person change his or her character?” Voltaire’s suggestion that “we can improve, we can smooth down, we can hide what nature has placed in us. But we put nothing there ourselves.”
Discussions with fellow inmates about this went back and forth, as a few men felt a person can change his nature. Unfortunately, their arguments were based more on emotion than reason.
I chimed in that a person can indeed change his nature. But it’s a lifelong pursuit that requires a constant vigilance and an insatiable hunger for knowledge. My supporting example was the Touchstones discussion group we were participating in. (Touchstone’s discussions begin when a short passage from Great Works of Literature is read, a question is raised and discussion follows). The fact all of us are striving to gain education, to overcome our criminal past and improve the quality of our lives, illustrates to anyone of sound intellect that our character is changing.
I challenged each man to reflect on his progress over the past few years they have been in school and ask themselves if they have truly changed their character. The results were startling. One individual doing 10 years for drug possession told the group he no longer wanted to do drugs and that school is teaching him a better way.
Another drug user made it clear, “I like getting high and I ain’t changing a damn thing about myself!” One young man serving a life sentence with all but 30 years suspended told the group he deeply regrets his actions that took another man’s life.
“I used to make excuses for killing this man… he stole my girlfriend, he disrespected me, I was high. But education and a newfound belief in God, and yes, Touchstones helped me build self-confidence, which comes through understanding myself.”
As in all Touchstones discussions, there is no solution. After the discussion I returned to my cell and silently thought on what my life in prison these past 33 plus years has given me. Long ago, like a Trappist monk, in my cell, I decided to make time work for me, not have time work on me. I educated myself through the various rehabilitation programs once available to prisoners. I went to college, I took social work courses in how to communicate with others and I learned to write. Reading Thomas Merton, I came to realize that no man is an island and only a malcontent would want to exclude himself from the wellspring of humanity.
Through the character building exercises of Touchstones and philosophers I have been fortunate enough to read and comprehend– such as Marcus Aurelius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – I’ve discovered that all difficulties in one’s life have a purpose. They are guiding you, through experience, towards harmony with God’s will. Some may disagree with my viewpoint, but many philosophies as a whole, in my opinion, are predicated upon the central theme that through self- realization man discovers true happiness and life’s meanings. The world’s various religions speak on how man can become one with God through achieving self-realization and surrender of the ego.
This is no easy task, especially for a man serving life in prison. Yet, I continue to make my way in a forbidding place by helping others with problems they may have. Amazingly, I am attaining a degree of self-realization by adhering to the Stoic philosophy founded by the Greek Zeno about 308 BC. I like the idea that the Greeks advanced: that God determines everything for the best and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. The Roman Stoics also advocated the calm acceptance of all occurrences as the unavoidable result of divine will or of the natural order.
Many will laugh at a convicted murderer advocating that he has virtue as part of his character. Epictetus, perhaps one of the greatest Roman Stoics, stated in his famed Enchiridion or Handbook, “It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself.”
Through studies and perseverance to truly change my character, I no longer mistrust everyone. I no longer hate others because they may disagree with or dislike me. And I no longer seek to settle differences through violence. Education, in particular philosophy, has shown me the humane side of my soul. The past 18 years I have been practicing the philosophy of Universal Love, where I recognize the rights, feelings and needs of others beyond my own concerns. My mantra is to love all and serve all. I don’t always succeed and my challenge makes life difficult, but it’s worth the effort.
My journey has been long and hard and I alone am to blame for my circumstances. I regret the harm I caused others. And like those fellow Touchstoners who accept their punishment and continue to grow and change their character, philosophy – regardless the school of thought – is like the rose which does not resist when the bud splits and the bloom unfolds. What is waiting to unfold in human consciousness is more beautiful than any rose and its unfolding is one of the wonders of life.
Larry Bratt is serving two Life sentences in Maryland for arranging a double murder.
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Larry Bratt #88754
P.O. Box 534
Jessup, MD 20794