I cannot remember which post it was when I mentioned a clerk telling me that in each offender or suspect that she serves, she starts by silently saying to him, “I salute your light”. Her words have stayed with me. I try to employ them each time I find myself getting hooked into judging the person in front of me, whose full life experience I can never know. It is a reminder to myself to stay neutral.
“I salute your light” is a silent recognition of the other person’s humanity. A reminder to oneself that we are each more than the sum total of our mistaken actions. We are more than our addictions. We are more than our limitations. We live the consequences of our mistakes, addictions and limitations – this is demonstrated on a daily basis in the criminal justice system. But that is still not all we are.
I like the idea of a quiet and gentle court clerk, about to hand a prisoner paperwork (your bail was set at 5000, you must surrender any weapons) looking at him through the bulletproof window with a little pass-through for paperwork in it, with a wordless look of recognition emanating from her eyes. Not to approve of his actions or be dismissive of the pain he may have caused. But merely to say, I see you. I recognize the fellow human in you. I salute your light.
We do not know about other people’s futures. We do not know how much their past will be a predictor of their future. Life has surely surprised each and every one of us, in our own near misses, our lucky breaks and close escapes. We have surprised ourselves after painful situations with our own resiliency and ability to learn and change. And licked the wounds of our vanity, in those situations where were were rightfully regretful of our own behaviors. We mustn’t forget this in our rush to judge others as wrong, so that we can continue to feel right and good and safe.
For some, their inner light may be a dim spark, or covered deep in the ashes of a decades-long trail of self-destruction. For others, it may be the roaring blaze of a drug-induced candle that is burning at both ends and seems destined for early burnout. Yet for a few of our prisoners, theirs may be burning into a purer flame. They may be destined to learn from their mistakes and to become in their turn a bearer of hope to others, lighting their way out of the darkness. We cannot know who will become a source of hope for others. But we can surely be that source of hope where we are able.
There is a card in the the tarot deck with a wizened old person holding a lantern in the darkness. He seems to be be saying, where you are, I once was. Where I am, you may be some day. It is called the hermit card. To me, it represents the need to be introspective in our search for wisdom. The need to search our own souls and our own dark places instead of shining the light on the mistakes of others and pointing the finger, while not seeing ourselves clearly enough to create meaningful change within. The hermit goes off, not to judge or blame others, but to take a good look at himself. It is in the quiet of that space, that solitude, that wisdom is found.
If we cannot rise to the occasion of saluting the feeble light of those who seem to be in darkness, perhaps we can at least reach neutrality. Without predicting, judging or guessing how someone will turn out, or where their life will take them after their jail time, we can at least acknowledge that we can never know everything about another person. We can at least take one step back from judgment.
We cannot know all the factors that led a person to stand before us in prison clothes and handcuffs. We cannot know what tools and skills they were given to deal with their lives. We cannot know where they are going or what future good they may embrace. So we really do not have all the information we would need in order to judge a fellow human and make a final decision on their sum total worth or value.
Instead, without a word spoken, without approving of any base or violent action, we can do what the gentlest of court clerks does, and offer an inward greeting: I salute your light.