our lives are not our own

Luckily for me, modern catalytic converters don’t pump out enough carbon-monoxide to kill you when you leave your car running in a closed garage. Turns out that over the past few decades they’ve become far more environmentally friendly, which means that although you’d eventually die – it’d be a slow painful death from a toxic cocktail of industrial byproducts that would take hours and hours to absorb into your system, not the relatively quick and painless sleep so often depicted in movies, suddenly taking hold after you claw pitifully at your windows following one last futile fit of coughing.

And for someone who’s decided on suicide, who wants to exercise control one last time and leave definitively on their own terms, slow and painful doesn’t fit the bill. Plus the asinine melodrama of the whole scenario hits you after about twenty minutes when you turn down the OneRepublic on your radio, take out your phone wondering why the hell you aren’t dead or even feeling much of anything yet, and a quick google explains through your tears that you’ve chosen a decidedly outdated and ineffective way of offing yourself.

But this doesn’t mean you’ve given up on the whole idea, because suicide still seems like a much better choice than spending the next decade or so of your life perpetually fighting off gang-rape in silent concrete showers, then at best living on the fringes of society as the lowest sort of social pariah should you manage to make it through that ordeal.

All of this is running through your head in the weeks and months leading up to your sentencing, and several times you’re half a bottle of Aspirin, ten minutes of wind-sprints, and one box-cutter away from a far more effective suicide. But then, after a few sketchy experiences on your way into the system, when you do actually take your first prison shower in the building where you’ll spend the next two years – a funny thing happens.

Strangely enough, it’s pretty close to the team showers you remember from college. Only filled with far more tattoos and missing teeth, and off in the corner one guy is fastidiously washing his clothes in the spray. The patter of friendly banter, the overdone homoeroticism, the pecking order – all of it’s oddly familiar. So the good news is that what makes prison terrible has nothing to do with dropped soap.

The bad news is that prison is terrible for a much more complex, insidious constellation of reasons, and no matter how tough you are they’re not something you can fight – at least not for as long as you would’ve hoped. And the worst news is that the choices that can lead you into prison aren’t the ones that you think. And they are choices that – all this time – you’ve mistakenly been thinking are entirely determined by your own free will.

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Long before Mark Walberg starred as a neighborhood hopeful who chased down his NFL dream in Invincible or as an underdog world champion boxer in The Fighter, he was a deep-sea fisherman alongside George Clooney in the blue-collar blockbuster The Perfect Storm, a harrowing true account of brotherhood and perseverance that was based on the bestselling book by Sebastian Junger.

After his success depicting the bonds between men working one of America’s most dangerous jobs, Junger would become a war correspondent. His award-winning documentary RESTREPO, made during his two years embedded with U.S. troops in the Afghan hinterlands, poignantly captured the indelible damage and extraordinary bonds that can only occur in war-time when young Americans were returned to what Junger described as a tribal existence.

And since modern humans stopped living in what we’d typically consider tribes long ago Americans have begun to feel disconnected from each other and their communities more today than ever before, as Junger details in his newest book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Tribal societies are based on the widespread existence of social trust, as everything from food to child-raising duties are shard among members of the group, and so group members have faith in each other, and trust that their interests will be guarded by other members of the group.

With the trust that comes from sharing both resources and responsibilities comes a sense of belonging, a sense of togetherness and connectedness that was lost along the way as society modernized and industrialized. And this disconnectedness contributes to any number of social ills: increasing corporate fraud and theft, a growing number of mass shootings and general gun violence, and an explosion of mental health issues ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder in our veterans to commonplace suicides.

Without a tribal sense of belonging humans seem to lose something primal and fundamental in their lives, something that sets us off-kilter if it’s missing. And it turns out to be something that can actually be measured, as least to some extent, as the burgeoning field of evolutionary anthropology has begun to quantify:

Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something for another person – a prosocial act, as it’s called- they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood. Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast-feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding in men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback of good feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare.”

And dopamine and oxytocin are only two of the myriad neurotransmitters which work collectively to regulate complex human behavior. Serotonin, noradrenalin, GABA, acetylcholine, cannabinoids, endorphins and others all weave a phenomenally complex tapestry of brain waves and action potentials within our skulls – dopamine alone has at least a dozen different receptors throughout our brains and plays a role in everything from fine motor control to pleasure seeking to the crystallization of religious beliefs. But it’s not like these neurotransmitters function on a simple full-to-empty gauge, each one has a three-part Goldilocks zone dependent on their rate of production, the rate enzymes break them down, and the number of receptors for each to fit into.

Presently only one of those three factors is commonly controlled at any one time by modern medicine – drugs like Prozac slow the rate at which serotonin is broken-down by enzymes, which can be a good thing if the extra serotonin helps improve your mood but a terrible thing if too much serotonin eventually accumulates since that can make you suicidal or impulsively violent. But since the other two factors – serotonin’s natural rate of production and the number of its receptors – aren’t modulated by Prozac, there’s no way for someone taking it to know if the drug is going to keep them in the Goldilocks zone or eventual push them out of it. So whether your buzz of choice is from caffeine blocking the enzymatic process that makes you feel tired, alcohol causing your brain to surge with GABA, or cocaine revving your dopamine levels through the roof – any substance that alters the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in your brain is in fact a mind-altering drug.

If that seems complex, consider that many of these neurotransmitters are actually synthesized in our guts by the billions and billions of symbiotic critters happily colonizing us, and precisely how they get up into our brains is largely a mystery. This relationship, between brain and intestinal tract, is so profound that baby mice whose guts are cleared of these critters have brains that fail to develop properly – they don’t form the protective insulation, know as myelin, which allows neurons to effectively function and heal. Clearly having a gut feeling about something is far more than just a metaphor.

Along with dopamine and oxytocin, other neurotransmitters play different, oftentimes overlapping, roles regulating human social interaction, whether it’s building feelings of affection and belonging or staying our hand when our impulse is to smack the shit out of someone.

Since oxytocin works to build feelings of social trust and bond us together, and all it takes for its levels to rise is a little bit of sustained eye-contact, it’s been called both the Love Hormone and the Trust Hormone for good reason. But its effects are as nuanced as its underlying tripartite biological mechanism, and like all neurotransmitters more of it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Oxytocin isn’t alone in functioning differently in each gender, but it can have a particularly insidious effect on females: early childhood abuse, either emotional or physical, predisposes young girls to need higher levels of oxytocin to cope with anxiety than girls who grow up in stable environments.

So the stereotype of a stripper with daddy issues may well have a biological origin, and since oxytocin surges in females during sexual contact, the next time you fool around with a girl known for constantly seeking out sexual encounters you may in fact be directly perpetuating the harm caused by a screaming father who pounded dents in her bedroom door or a family friend whose lap she always did her best to avoid.

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So the good news, for the most part, is that humans seem to be wired to function as members of a group, and that this membership occurs – in the purest sense of the word – naturally throughout American society. We find it holding our families, surrounded by our friends, laughing in our classrooms, and as athletes huddled together with our teammates and coaches. It’s something instinctual that can actually be seen in black and white too, as neuroimaging has shown that humans have “emotional biases toward cooperation that can only be overcome with effortful cognitive control.”

And this sense of cooperative belonging permeates everything that is good in our lives, and is all-too easy to take for granted if we never take the time to look at the path we’ve worn and notice how much help – from shoelaces and sandwich crusts to pep-talks and wind-sprints – we’ve relied upon along the way.

But the bad news is that the communities all too many Americans are born into have a striking dearth of any sort of social trust and fantastically damaging levels of stress. The vast majority of the men here in prison hail from neighborhoods where school was a sometimes place held together in piecemeal by detentions and exasperation, where parents hollered drug and alcohol-laced threats far more often then they whispered words of comfort or encouragement, where authority figures were to be feared and avoided instead of trusted and relied upon. Their arrival here was largely their fate, dictated in no small part by the world they were born into – a world jam-packed with countless stressors and rampant antisocial behavior. And this contrast can be placed in empirical terms:

“The social class of the family during the child’s first ten to fifteen years predicts the amount of education, scores on tests of reading and mathematics, occupation, income, physical and mental health, longevity, sleep quality, criminal behavior, and a feeling of well-being in the adult. The joint income of the parents of youths who entered college in the fall of 2013 was an excellent predictor of the youth’s score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The scores of the seventeen-year-olds from the poorest families were 388 points lower than the scores of those who grew up in the wealthiest families… When children living near a waste dump containing cancer causing chemicals develop leukemia experts acknowledge the causal role of the toxic environment and do not place the origin of the symptom in the patient.

Dr. James Garbarino, the first clinician to serve as a psychological expert witness during the sentencing phase of murder cases, outlines the existence of a “war zone mentality” that permeates many innercities. Its hallmark is the sense that ”violence is a moral imperative when one is threatened, challenged, or disrespected – and that death is morally preferable to dishonor.” As a result “youths act tough to ward off attacks from others (and to enhance their status with peers),” and if they’re threatened they respond aggressively, often ”perceiving even more threat than may be intended,” pumping escalation into the cycle which continues, and as a result “the war zone mentality flourishes.” And inhabitants of neighborhoods with a war-zone mentality are rewired by their environments, as the stress of their surroundings makes them “extra-susceptible to future problems by destroying the very brain pathways that would help [them] stay calm and in control… early stress affects how these circuits are wired as the brain matures, weakening top-down control throughout [their] lives.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that prison is the continual fate for all too many young men from those neighborhoods. The youngest 18-to-24 demographic accounts for just ten-percent of America but is responsible for over a quarter of our criminal arrests, and more often than not they return as “recidivism rates for offenders aged 18 to 24 are breathtakingly high: 78 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds released from prison are rearrested, and half return to prison again.” And yet this isn’t really even the full picture at all, since the convention when discussing recidivism rates is to quote the three-year rate, so that means 78 percent of that cohort is rearrested and half return to prison within three years of their release, not in their lifetimes. Sometimes the five-year rate is also given, but when that’s done it’s explicitly stated, and pretty much no one goes anywhere beyond that since lifetime rates are both clumsy to track and quickly become way too depressing.

Over time this cycle becomes a social norm, meaning that “the more the culture surrounding violent communities – and embedded in the consciousness of the parents and kids who live there – validates elements of the war zone mentality, the more likely it is to produce moral damage.” But where exactly does this sense of “moral damage” come from? Or our sense of morality to begin with? Certainly there’s an argument that there’s something celestial or spiritual going on, but emerging research also seems to indicate that there may be a more intrinsic, primatological explanation.

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Jean Piaget, widely considered the greatest developmental psychologist of all time, recognized that social ideals such as fairness seemed to be somehow rooted in our biological development: it wasn’t until age five or six that children begin to recognize fairness, as captured by their behavior playing marbles and other games in his lab. Piaget’s experiments and observations introduced the idea that human morality somehow develops alongside our physical body as we get older, since it’s impossible for children to grasp certain moral concepts until they reach a given age.

His research was expanded upon by another giant in the field, Lawrence Kohlberg, who codified Piaget’s insights into a six-stage progression in moral reasoning, stages that could only be reached at discrete ages. So while three-year old humans never grasp the concept of fairness no matter how you try to explain or teach it to them, five and six year-olds readily grasp it after having it explained to them and playing a few games together where they can demonstrate it – illustrating that the human brain has to hit a certain age before its ready to contemplate moral issues.

But maybe more curiously, in recent years careful experimentation has shown that chimps, bonobos, and other mammals even lower on the evolutionary ladder than us seem to display an inherent, biological sense of fairness:

…Primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber eaters become agitated, throw down their veggies, and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion get something better. We labeled it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets a piece of sausage for the same trick.

And as the only primatologist to make Time‘s list of 100 Most Influential People, Frans De Waal, narrates in The Bonobo and the Atheist, moral behavior in lower primates goes far beyond simple fairness. Instances of abundant, soulful altruism abound in primatology. There’s Azalea, a rhesus monkey with the ape equivalent of Down Syndrome who not only spent her entire life being lovingly tended to by her troop but could break about every rhesus rule there was, going as far as clumsily threatening the troop’s alpha male, without any sort of repercussion from her normally highly socially-regimented species.

Then there’s Mozu, a Japanese macaque who was born with neither hands nor feet.

While her troop swung high above her in the branches, Mozu would plod along through the snow below following them. However she was far from left behind by her extended family, as she mothered and raised five offspring – with, of course, a little help from her friends. Chimps have often been observed not only to make tools for their own use, but to make them for friends to use after they’ve eaten their full. And to actively mourn for those friends after they die. So as primates we humans are far less unique than we once thought when it comes to getting by only with a little help from our friends, and looking out for others even when we don’t directly benefit at all from it.

All of this apparent altruism would seem to point to something unique in primate neurology, and in the late nineties that’s precisely what a team of Italian researchers found: simply watching another monkey perform an action would cause some of the neurons in the observing monkey’s brain responsible for performing that same action to fire, meaning that those brains cells were “adopting the other animal’s point of view … and were for all intents and purposes reading the other monkey’s mind.” So it is these mirror neurons which allow you to place yourself in other’s shoes, and which “enable you to imitate the movements of others, thereby setting the stage for the cultural ‘inheritance’ of skills developed and honed by others.”

These mirror neurons also fire when you, or any other primate, watches something happening to someone else, and it’s only because your brain checks in with nerve cells on that part of your body to make sure no physical contact is actually occurring that you don’t literally feel another’s pain. However as exposure to a home video depicting someone getting drilled in the nuts by a wayward football can illustrate: sometimes that feedback loop is at least partially overridden. And so the implications for empathy and all social behaviors are profound:

Anytime you watch someone doing something, the neurons that your brain would use to do the same thing become active – as if you yourself were doing it. If you see a person being poked with a needle, your pain neurons fire away as though you were being poked. It is utterly fascinating, and it raises some interesting questions. What prevents you from blindly imitating every action you see? Or from literally feeling someone else’s pain? In the case of motor mirror neurons, one answer is that there may be … inhibitory circuits that suppress the automatic mimicry when it is inappropriate. In a delicious paradox, this need to inhibit unwanted or impulsive action may have been a major reason for the evolution of free will. [You] constantly conjure up vivid images of multiple options for actions that are available in any given context, and your frontal cortex suppresses all but one of them. Thus it has been suggested that free won’t may be a better term than free will.

As famed maverick biologist E.O. Wilson first argued a generation ago, even insects can be said to exhibit the same sort of altruistic “eusociality” that binds human and other primate societies together. And yet only humans get to have teachers who at the very least never waver in trying their best to make you feel safe in their classrooms, community leaders who present opportunities for you to learn about yourself and your place in the world through service, and coaches who teach you the value of chasing your dreams as hard as you possibly can – because even if you don’t realize them, you still become shaped into a much better person through your efforts. And in a way every crime, from murder to home invasions to drug-dealing to the gamut of different sex offenses, is a form of betraying the trust that binds all of those relationships together. Sometimes the bonds you break don’t only exist between you and your victim, sometimes you’re also rending bonds that tie your victim to a community you’ve never met by enabling their own self-destruction, and so you can tell yourself that your crime is victimless.

It never is.

And sometimes the person you hurt is someone whose protection you’ve been entrusted with, and you don’t so much break a bond as allow it to become something it shouldn’t – but that’s still a betrayal of your community’s trust, still a crime that deserves punishment. The moral codes that regulate social trust aren’t arbitrary constructions of our culture, they’re extraordinarily important guardians rooted in our very biology, not just abstract concepts that society decides to embrace on a whim. They’re meant to protect and nurture the tribal sense of belonging and connectedness that is both incredibly fragile and inexorably woven into our fundamental humanity – crimes don’t just harm your victim, they betray everyone in your life who’s ever tried to guide you, or comfort you, or help you along the way.

So in a sense incarceration is a fitting fate for all of us who’ve broken any of the different bonds which keep a community woven together, because in prison your mirror neurons don’t reflect the laughter and love and support of a community trying to nurture you – instead of subconsciously basking in their joy and concern, behind these walls mirror neurons unavoidably fire as the men around you struggle with the despair caused by wives who wander and parents who pass, and are tormented by the fear of predation or the inevitability of someday dying in here. After a year showering in the same big room as everyone else on your tier you’ll finally think to ask a Lifer why the hooks collapse if you put more than a few pieces of clothing on them, and he’ll look you in the eye and ask, “Son, is there anything heavy in here you can think of that the administration doesn’t want anyone to easily be able to hang?”

Tell yourself their problems are not your own all you want – your neurobiology betrays every attempt at callous indifference. Not a day will pass of your incarceration where you won’t see hunger or anxiety flash across eyes trying their best to be cold and proud.

On the right tier you’ll be able to marvel at the El Salvadorians who go without to make sure one of their countrymen over in another building who they’ve never met before at least has a bar of soap and a pack of noodles. On the wrong tier you’ll hear palms slapping against steel doors and your own voice joining a chorus of cries for help slapping unheard against the Plexiglas that the guards willfully hide behind. After forty-five minutes a man with a heart condition is carried out by his wrists and ankles by guards finally forced to pretend to care. Or maybe it’ll be just your voice pleading and your palms slapping as you implore a guard to let you out of a cell holding someone threatening to kill you in your sleep, and the guard will look you directly in the eyes before he laughs in your face and waddles off down the tier.

It’d probably surprise you to see, for the most part, just how decent inmates can be to each other. You might have to land a few punches in the early days, but we’re all in here together and whether we like it or not through our mirror neurons we all feel each other’s pain. Sure there are isolated acts of incredible cruelty and indifference, however all-in-all guys leave each other to do their time on their own terms if they simply keep to themselves. So long as you say ‘scuse me anytime you pass within eight-inches of anyone and walk around with fuck you written on your face while avoiding eye-contact, by and large you’ll be left alone. Just don’t depend on anyone to have your back or your best interests in mind, you can expect decency or indifference – not kindness. But catch a guard on a bad day and you can have years worth of good conduct days taken away just for missing a single evaluation. Years of your life forfeit in a moment just because you overslept.

On the outside you can trust that those in authority will, for the most part, act transparently and rationally: if you get pulled-over by the cops or scolded by your boss, although they may be a bit priggish about it, you can trust that any punishment will be limited and at least vaguely rational. And you can trust that the friends and loved-ones will be trustworthy and dependable – you aren’t on your own, you have people watching out for you.

But in here the most you can hope for is a sort of tentative, incongruent camaraderie that can emerge temporarily among inmates when we’re pitted against the guards, and you can never be sure if the administration will randomly decide to make their bad day the worst of your life. It’s one thing to be formally sentenced in a marble and mahogany courtroom full of degrees and decades of experience after due process has been followed, it’s quite another to watch vindictive and competitively petty guards with a high school degree and a hangover strip away years of another man’s freedom simply because they can. Which may seem cruel or unusual when you consider that guards have mirror neurons too, until you finally realize that to many of them we’re hardly people so their mirror neurons don’t really come into play.

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All of us would like to think that the choices we make are very much our own, that although our moral compass may at least partially be a biological construction, choosing whether or not to follow it is still the reasoned product of our own carefully applied free will and a direct reflection of our unshakable individuality. And yet it turns out that not only are our minds inevitably influenced by the behavior and suffering of those around us, but that Reason has much less than we’d like to think to do with our decisions: our choices are far more tied to the most primitive emotional parts of our brains than our conscious awareness would like us to think.

And perhaps there’s no better way to demonstrate this than by looking at patients with damage to an oblong tangerine-sized region of our brains just behind and above the bridge of our nose, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Enough damage to this region can drop your emotional function to zero, meaning you could “look at the most joyous or gruesome photographs and feel nothing.” Which also means that although you’d still be able to answer abstract questions about morality in others’ lives, in the sense of filling in the blank of a social equation, in your own personal life your decisions become so amoral or foolish that you alienate your loved ones, lose your job, and your entire life falls apart.

This, inevitably, led the neuroscientists who noticed these changes to conclude that “gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally” and that without a functioning ventromedial prefrontal cortex it’s impossible for us to integrate these emotional gut feelings with conscious thought. So without this region of the brain working properly “every option at every moment felt as good as every other.” As it turns out, it’s the most primitive, instinctual, split-second region of our brains that leads the charge into decision-making and “moral reasoning is mostly just a post ad hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.”  So if you continually put yourself in emotionally-charged situations, it’ll only be a matter of time before this elephant of subconscious emotional desire shifts beneath you and takes a step down a path that can ruin your life and the lives of those around you.

And it’s always this dominating emotional elephant of rapid instinctive moral judgments that’s in control, the best that the contemplative reasoning rider on top of this primal beast can do is to come up with rationalizations after the elephant has sated its desires.

Sometimes these desires are perfectly healthy for ourselves and the society around us, at other times they leave feelings and lives trampled behind. Which means that although the rider can do his best to look into the future in an attempt to steer the elephant down the best path, more often than not he’s left trying to serve as the elephant’s spokesperson without really knowing what the elephant is thinking and “fabricating post ad hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done” while justifying whatever course it feels like taking next.

On a social level, “once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” to provide an acceptable justification for everything we do. Because after all, “reason is the servant of the intuitions. The rider was put there in the first place to serve the elephant.”

But this elephant isn’t always galloping along blind to everything except its own whims. Since although “we make out first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments … friends can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometimes trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible for us to change our minds.” So although “many of us believe that we follow an inner moral compass … the history of social psychology richly demonstrates that other people exert a powerful force, able to make cruelty seem acceptable and altruism seem embarrassing, without giving us any reasons or arguments.”

And of course the converse also holds true: it is often our friends who can bring out the best in us.

Not only that, studies all across the globe have shown that our friends have a dramatic effect on our health: social isolation is at least as harmful as alcohol and tobacco use, and could be worse than obesity and a lack of exercise. In what’s been called one of the most powerful behavioral findings in the world, the friendless trust less, judge others more harshly, get sicker, and are twice as likely to die in any given decade. The findings likely stem from the fact that “chronic loneliness reshapes the brain,” which makes sense since social pain and emotional pain activate the exact same brain regions as physical pain.

So it is our friends who help shape our lives in a much more profound way than even our most poignant memories of laughter and embraces and wet shoulders might let on. Without noble friends at our side, when after years of incarceration old friendships become only biers for the best of times, those of love and joy and all we hold most dear, we begin to become lost alone with our elephant.

A creature that grows sullen and impatient as it watches and overhears proud stories of its counterparts running rampant without even the barest attempt by their riders to rein them in. For many inmates, for those who have grown-up in urban war­-zones, emotional cues have entirely different neurological responses, since “kids who grow up with violence as a backdrop in their lives don’t show much emotion in their interview responses and, based on MRI scans, have weaker neural connections and less interaction in parts of the brain involved in awareness, judgment, and ethical emotional processing.” The elephants in here will seem like an entirely different species than your own if you don’t come from their neighborhoods.

And so it is to prison that we lose one of the most important parts of ourselves, and finding yourself surrounded by men used to living by utterly alien social norms it soon becomes a constant struggle just to remember who you once were. Friendships fade in prison. Maybe some old friends do their best to stick close by, and maybe you’re lucky enough to find someone inside to help guide you along – but rarely do either of those last for long, as prison life is a place of constant flux. No matter how many hours you spend desperately holding on to what was, there will be addictions you aren’t side-by-side to help fight and marriages you aren’t around to celebrate. Time will pass, and your old place in the world fades away. And yet turning these friendships into husks and losing strands of who you once were in the process is only part of what prison will take away from you.

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Maybe at this point the picture seems a bit unsettling, perhaps free will and reason are more in the backseat than firmly behind the wheel as we’d assumed. But okay, feelings and mirror neurons are important and powerful, maybe respecting their roles in our lives a bit more can only be a good thing. And yet this is only the picture’s foreground, what’s in the background may be even more unsettling.

Although humans share mirror neurons and what’s likely a resultant inborn sense of altruism with our primate cousins, there’s a different associational mechanism that’s in our brains, and our brains alone. No matter how many years of language-training a non-human animal has had, it’ll never pass a simple test human infants instinctively nail every single time. Many creatures – monkeys, dogs, and dolphins among them – can learn to associate a picture of a frog with the printed word Frog, and that same picture with the sound of ribbiting. But this learned associative arrow points in only one direction: from picture to printed word, or from picture to ribbiting.

It’s only humans, with an ability that emerges instinctively in our infancy, who can reverse this associational arrow and then be shown the word Frog or listen to ribbiting and subsequently pick a frog’s picture out of a line-up of other creatures. No other animal can reverse the associative arrow – we’re it. And by ago two, children will spontaneously respond with their own ribbiting when asked, “what does a frog say?” and vice-versa, even though this third relationship – between the word representing the animal and the sound it makes – hasn’t been explicitly taught. Our brains spontaneously make the association. And yet this is only the beginning of an associative story that’s at the very core of our shared humanity.

Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahnernan piled into the back of a military jeep with his friend Amos Tversky and bounced across a Middle Eastern war zone strewn with landmines, sampling soldiers’ performances and impressions of armed combat while also gathering information about which MREs were preferred by sifting through piles of garbage to find out what wasn’t being eaten, an approach that made newspaper headlines. After their teeth were chattered by mortared potholes, they were cut on this early scientific sampling of all-too real human behavior, motivated by the overarching idea that our actions are often quite different from what raw economic theory posits they should be in any given situation. One of their early findings was that soldiers in war-zones aren’t in fact fighting for the abstract ideals they’re often touted to be defending. When it comes down to it each man is fighting for the friends beside him – the first scientific quantification of military squads as bands of brothers.

In the decades that followed, Kahneman and Tversky would make countless contributions to our understanding of human decision-making. One of their earliest discoveries was the availability heuristic, the inevitable tendency for our judgment to be influenced by how easily examples of a given topic come to mind. For instance, media coverage of the fatalities makes tornadoes seem more dangerous than asthma and lightning deadlier than botulism, even though those medical risks respectively kill twenty and fifty-two times more people than the natural disaster they were just paired with.

And yet mental availability doesn’t just affect your thoughts on traumatic events, another well-known study outlines how spouses will have vastly different ideas around who contributes more to household chores due to an availability bias: nearly all of us feel like we pitch-in more than our counterparts since we can remember what we did and the behavior of others is an abstraction. So on a fundamental level, we find it almost impossible to correctly assess someone else’s actions, especially when they’re evaluated against our own. As humans, we see our behavior as far more noble then it actually is, and assume that an outside other wouldn’t live up to the standards we’ve set. But as Kahneman chronicles in the book dedicated to his late friend, Thinking, Fast and Slow, after we take a careful look at just how subject to outside influence our own behaviors and thoughts are, it becomes impossible not to acknowledge just how malleable we really are and how important it is to keep track of the sort of circumstances we place ourselves in.

Maybe it won’t come as a surprise to learn that being prompted with a story about cleaning dirty clothes will make it much more likely for you to complete W __ __ H and S __ __ P as W A S H and S O A P as opposed to W I S H or S O U P. However it should be at least a small surprise to learn that a story about betraying a friend, a “dirty deed,” will have the exact same effect on your word completion as a story about dirty clothes. A phenomenon that’s often played out in prison, as many inmates who committed crimes that earned them decades-long sentences will habitually scrub down the entirety of their cells multiple times a day.

This contextual prompting effect is known as priming, and its implications for human behavior and our own free will go far beyond simple stories and word choice. Priming can escape the page, as students who were asked to unscramble sentences that included words like forgetful, Florida, bald, gray and wrinkle in them and then asked to walk down a hall to another room ended up walking significantly slower than students who weren’t primed with words associated with the elderly, even though the sentences never actually had the word old or any reference to speed in them – only words that would create a subconscious association with oldness. And, maybe even more surprisingly, the converse held true as well: when instructed to first walk at one-third their natural rate, a speed more suitable for a grandparent, students then recognized worlds like forgetful, old, and lonely much more readily, even though their walking instructions were explicitly about speed – not age.

In a related set of experiments, people were told they were testing the quality of new headphones by listening to radio editorials with them. During this supposed testing, to test for sound distortions they were instructed to repeatedly either shake their head from side to side or nod it up and down. Those who had been nodding yes tended to accept the opinion expressed in the editorials they were listening to while those shaking their heads no tended to reject it.

So our physical motions can unconsciously affect our thoughts, and vice-versa, and yet priming goes well beyond physical gestures. Our surroundings will inevitable effect other behaviors too, as studies of voting patterns have shown that support for propositions to increase school funding is far greater when polling stations are located inside schools, and even exposing voters to school-related images cause support for educational initiatives to rise. Maybe that makes it seem like priming mostly has a positive influence, however when it comes to money and priming, its double-edged nature becomes evident.

Experiments which subtly prime participants with anything from financial terms to Monopoly money stacked on the table do make people spend twice as long trying to solve a tough problem instead of giving up on it and show more self-reliance, however they also became more selfish and less helpful to someone in need. And placing a banner with watchful eyes on it above an office “honesty box” designated to take payments for caffeinated drinks will make donations spike significantly when compared to a banner with festive flowers on it being hung – great if you’re collecting the money, costly if you’re giving it.

So at this point, “you have now been introduced to the stranger in you, which may be in control of much of what you do, although you rarely have a glimpse of it.”

This stranger “contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising,” reflexively producing a web of subconscious associations following every stimulus since it’s “the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgments. And it does most of this without our conscious awareness of its activities.” As Dr. Kahneman explains while channeling Dr. Frankenstein:

You did not will it and you could not stop it … ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain. The essential feature of this complex set of mental events is its coherence. Each element is connected, and each supports and strengthens the others. The word evokes memories, which evoke emotions, which in turn evoke facial expressions and other reactions … and the feelings in turn reinforce compatible ideas. All this happens quickly and all at once, yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that is both diverse and integrated. Cognition is embodied; you think with you body, not only with your brain … you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.

And not only does this stranger hold sway over practical matters, he also reaches in to our very sense of good and bad, of right and wrong. Oddly enough, our values can change when there are infections agents around. Students asked to ponder morally hazy behavior – from relatively innocuous things like fudging a resume or returning a lost wallet, to more unpalatable decisions like unethical journalism or eating fellow plane crash survivors – were far more harsh with their moral judgments when seated around food stains or chewed-up pens, or when exposed to fart spray, which is exactly what it sounds like.

When you’re exposed to possible sources of contagion you’ll also be harsher when evaluating behavior that isn’t undoubtedly immoral but just doesn’t sit right, and more negatively judge a man who, for instance, fornicates on his grandmother’s bed – not while she’s there, just while housesitting for her. After disgust’s been elicited you’ll become “more likely to endorse biblical truth than those not subjected to the polluted air.” Standing someone next to a hand-sanitizer dispenser will make their moral, fiscal, and social opinions more conservative.

And this phenomenon applies directly to our criminal-justice system as well, as “a study of people serving as mock jurors found that those highly prone to disgust were most inclined to judge ambiguous evidence as proof of criminal wrongdoing, to impose stiffer sentences, and to see the suspect as wicked.” But maybe most disconcertingly, this same study was also replicated with law students, police cadets, and veteran forensic experts.

So not only are the choices that can land you in prison subject to influences operate quietly and insidiously beyond the ken of our free will, the choices of those who will decide your fate lay at least partially outside of theirs. But this doesn’t excuse immoral or illegal behavior, it simply means that you have to be aware of the situations you’re putting yourself in and the influence that the seemingly innocuous can have. The lyrics you listen to, the jokes you make, the television shows you watch, the lifestyle you idealize – all of these play a subtle role in swaying your actions, carefully weaving an inescapable diaphanous web around everything you do.

Your choices aren’t made in the moment it seems they are. The circumstances you place yourself in and the context you surround yourself with, the words and symbols and values you make part of your life, combine to begin priming your subconscious and forcing it to continually decide which of the options at hand not to chose, and influence your eventual decisions like implanted hypnotic suggestions – prompting behavior which may well never have happened without their influence. On some level it’s the choice to continually place yourself in a situation where one too many beers, one changed mind, one conflicting story are all it takes to put you behind these bars that matters – not what may or not have actually happened once that story has already begun to be told.

There’s even a theory that culture itself and all the behaviors it encompasses “originated as a behavioral adaptation to an epidemic-filled past.” So from spicing our foods to showing affection to burying the dead – there may not be a single culture touchstone left unmarred by immunology’s influence. And these immune behaviors “once developed, stick around because the people who indulge in them are less vulnerable to infectious diseases. The behaviors, passed down through the generations, become entrenched.” Especially so in prisons.

After a smartly-dressed female administrator walks nearby you’ll hear a particularly greasy inmate leer: oh man, look at that bitch – on the street it would only take me a few hours to fuck her … out of all her credit card numbers. And as you shake your head and everyone else around you chortles you’ll try to put the situation in perspective, and not let it get to you too much. But, before long, you’ll start to wonder if there isn’t some horrible hood-rat version of Sesame Street where Oscar is constantly choking his handler out, Snufflepagus and Big Bird are teaching the kids the best way to light a crack-pipe, and Bert and Ernie have Elmo shorn bare and tied-up in their basement.

And as the months pile up you’ll begin to become inured to the immorality around you, and eventually instead of fighting the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and ignorance that relentlessly weave themselves into your life you’ll have no choice but to simply do as much as you can to block it all out, to lie back and stop thrashing since some of those poisons will inevitably seep into your soul too.

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As the space-shuttle Challenger exploded into thousands of shimmering, smoking pieces a few moments after launch a handful of NASA engineers felt their hearts drop to the ground far more swiftly than the debris peacefully arcing its decent through the crisp Florida morning, silently tracing out the last moments of seven astronauts, seven of their friends. These men knew the Challenger disaster was entirely avoidable:

…the NASA contractor charged with engineering the O-rings requested a teleconference on the eve of the fatal Challenger launch. After a previous launch, its engineers had noticed O-ring damage that looked different from damage they’d seen before. Suspecting that cold was a factor, the engineers saw the near-freezing forecast and made a “no launch” recommendation – something they had never done before. But the data they faxed to NASA to buttress their case were the same data they had earlier used to argue that the space-shuttle was safe to fly. NASA pounced on the inconsistency. Embarrassed and unable to overturn the script they themselves had built in the preceding years, [they] buckled. The “no launch” recommendation was reversed to “launch. “

When an institution accepts behavior ranging from morally dubious to blatantly immoral, just about everyone who’s a part of that institution tends to go along with it, a phenomenon that’s been called the normalization of deviance. This results in group members behaving as if nothing is wrong even when cold, hard facts point to extraordinary risk or even explicit harm, “a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as not okay are slowly reclassified as okay.”

This behavior may seem bizarre and inexplicable, but it has a direct counterpart in our individual neurobiology. Patients with a rather peculiar sort of brain damage can produce a particular type of delusion known as a confabulation, they won’t know who they are or where they are or who the president is, but they’ll think they do and “fabricate bogus replies and say them with confidence, repeating those same answers day after day.”

Stuck in a starkly-lit hospital room and surrounded by medical machinery, if you ask a patient who’s confabulating how he could possibly still be at home as he’s insisting when there are elevators outside his room, he’ll respond that you wouldn’t believe how much it cost to have them installed in his house. And he won’t be lying, confabulations aren’t intentional untruths – they’re elements of a necessary story that a brain-damaged patient is clinging to as they try to explain the reality they find themselves in but can’t wrap their heads around. But even without brain damage, social pressure can cause any of us to come up with moral confabulations to explain away our questionable behavior in group settings.

In the Challenger’s case it was O-ring damage, in the case of the Ford Pinto it was the fact that even though when struck from behind the car would explode like a Jerry Bruckheimer prop and incinerate its passengers, recalling it failed a corporate cost-benefit analysis – a moral confabulation that caused over two-dozen people to needlessly burn to death. Both of these cases, and the countless other moral confabulations like them in the corporate world – some involving life-and-death scenarios and others only mortgage defaults and families being thrown out into the street – involve group members “developing a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong … not merely acting as if nothing was wrong,” but actually believing it, “bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but itself.”

No matter what sort of organization or administration you’re in, these moral confabulations and this doublethink can always emerge. By any measure NASA engineers are incredibly intelligent, all the same that didn’t protect them from those errors any more than Wall Street’s wanton greed causes their morally questionable behaviors. To them, their behavior simply isn’t morally questionable at all. Group members can convince each other that just about anything is okay, it’s simply a part of our humanity, the same biological wiring that leads to cooperation and altruism. And perhaps the only way to prevent it is to never identify too strongly or completely with any one group, to be willing to accept that deviance can be normalized anywhere and to listen to outsiders who are questioning the possible impact of your own group’s behavior.

So it’s fitting that it took outside advocates for criminal justice reform to argue that our prison system is ”cruel and wrong” and that although the intentions behind it are humane and meant to reform, those who have designed our prisons “did not know what it was they were doing.” And given the psychological toll that the grind of prison inflicts, it was this “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain” which is far worse than any physical effect of incarceration.

Additional investigations have concluded that prisons aren’t even preventing offenders from committing crimes during their stay, stating: ”if the object is to make [an inmate] a better member of society … that purpose cannot be answered by matters as they now stand.” Corruption and  overcrowding run rampant, and minorities make up a highly disproportionate number of inmates.

And sadly, those first two statements were made by Charles Dickens over 150 years ago during his 1852 tour of a Philadelphia prison, and the investigative findings referenced were reported that same year. But despite all the time that’s passed and all the generations who have been lost behind these walls, very little has changed about the American prison system. The following passage from The Oxford History of the Prison references prisons of the late 1800s, but is unfortunately interchangeable with today’s situation over 100 years later:

Guards and wardens inevitably become cynical about the idea of reform, trotting it out only at convenient times and places …. When serious offenders were crowded together within a prison, wardens and guards had the incentive, and in their eyes the justification, to increase again and again the severity of prison discipline. For still another, as legislators and citizens came to understand the nature of the prison population, they became satisfied to let the operation be essentially custodial.

Then as now, “the prison turns out to be an ineffective and undesirable venue for reformative efforts – be they educative, psychological, socially adaptive, or whatever.” As generations of sky-high recidivism rates have borne out, “it is hard to train for freedom in a cage.” For whatever reason, the last time the West bothered to seriously examine its criminal-justice system was roughly 250 years ago when a Jesuit-educated nobleman named Cesare Beccaria made his claim as the most influential Enlightenment writer when it came to criminal­-justice reform.

It’s because of his short treatise, On Crimes and Punishments, that capital punishment has all but disappeared in the West, that psychological reform trumped physical torture as incarceration’s goal, that the rich too are subject to imprisonment and not be able to buy their way out – maybe that one exists more in spirit – and that legal distinctions between the social classes have been eliminated. And perhaps most enduringly, it was Beccaria who first argued for the presumption of innocence instead of guilt and against torture as a valid means of obtaining confessions. But one argument of his that’s been largely forgotten is about the root cause of criminality.

As far back as the Athenians, the West has known that injustice resulted from intolerable levels of inequality. Athenian judicial proceedings relied upon equality among the citizens of their city-state, without that they knew there could be no true justice. So linking inequality and injustice can be traced at least 2,500 years back to the Athenians, who were convinced not only that great inequalities were the source of injustices but that “equality gives birth to friendship,” which then fosters peace. Or as Beccaria described the direct relationship between poverty and crime about 200 years ago:

Who made these laws? Rich and powerful men who have never deigned to visit the squalid hovels of the poor, who have never broken a moldy crust of bread among the innocent cries of their famished children and the tears of their wives. Do you want to prevent crimes? See to it that enlightenment accompanies liberty.

Yet there’s little enlightenment to be found in America’s prisons, as barely a quarter of inmates enter our state prisons with high school diplomas and less than three-percent begin their stay with college degrees. Which doesn’t come as a surprise when poverty’s effects on the brain are examined, and you consider how poverty and its accompanying “violence, excessive noise, chaos at home, pollution, malnutrition, abuse and parents without jobs can affect the interactions, formation, and pruning of connections in the young brain.” Impoverished children have less brain tissue in regions that support information processing, decision making, problem solving, impulse control, judgment, auditory processing, paying attention, and self-awareness – in short, just about every key to academic achievement. And many of the elements that contribute to forming the culture you were used to if you grew up in the suburbs.

As a result, the culture that emerges in prison is a mishmashed pidgin that draws from the various neighborhoods and blocks represented on any given prison tier or pod, and is incredibly stressful and difficult to adjust to if it’s not something you grew up with. At all hours of the day every single half-formed thought is shouted out to join the surging cacophony of clanging doors, blasting televisions, and shouted orders that crashes relentlessly against your skull. Beating the hell out of someone who owes you a few dollars isn’t just accepted, it’s expected – veiled threats and macho posturing aren’t intimidation, they’re basic forms of communication.

After a few weeks behind bars it won’t even be vaguely surprising to learn that although psychopaths make up just one-percent of America’s overall population, they make up sixteen-percent of our prison population. Locked in a six-by-nine foot concrete box with another man you’ll soon forget what privacy ever meant. And while you’re adjusting to all this, the stress will increase your risk of cardiac disease, diabetes, obesity, ulcers, immune disorders, cancer, sleep disorders, and depression. At one point the institution itself provided the punishment, today the soft psychological torture often comes more from other inmates.

But the more you learn about your fellow inmates, the more empathy you’ll develop for them and the more inevitable their fate will seem. After all:

Beyond the life-and-death choices many [felons] have to make, there are the economic choices that confront them because of their position at the bottom of the economic ladder in America. How many of us would choose to forgo making $250 a day by selling drugs when the alternative appeared to be $8 an hour at McDonald’s, if our families were poor and we had never known anyone who held a “real” job? How many of us would choose to risk being beaten up or even killed if we decided not to join the powerful gang that runs our neighborhood, if there were no one in our life powerful enough to protect us? How many of us would choose to work hard to stay in school if we didn’t know anyone who had graduated, if we had lost hope for a positive future in the mainstream American life? Honestly.

So whether you engaged in the inevitably violent black market drug trade, beat the hell out of someone, invaded someone’s privacy and sense of security by breaking into their home, trafficked in services or products whose production or distribution damages society, or in any way broke the trust that keeps a community glued together – their world will become your world.

And because American criminal law is based in part on the concept of mens rea, the knowledge that your act is wrongful, no matter how much your victim meant to you or how unintended the damage you caused was, at your trial prepare for the prosecutor not just to assassinate your character but put it through a sensationalist and hyperbolic meat-grinder. And hopefully your name is fairly common, because if it’s unique then for the rest of your life you’ll walk around with the knowledge that at any point someone you meet could pull the search engine out of their pocket and with a few taps destroy the possibility of ever establishing any trust with them.

After you’re released from prison you nominally get your freedom back, however depending on the particulars of your case and something as simple as how common your name is, the freedom you return to will never be the same as it was before. And so in prison you will loose touch with the tribe that made you who you are, with so much and so many you never even bothered to look around and notice was there. Looking out for you, protecting you, helping you back up, forever reminding you that who you are has as much to do with where you came from as the choices you’ve made. No matter how much you might think you know, no matter how much you might think you have it all figured out – your dreams will be gutted trying to escape these barbwire fences and these penumbral walls will do their best to smother every single hope you have of ever finding redemption.

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Serendipity, kismet, coincidence – at some point in our lives each of us has had an experiences that, if it doesn’t fully defy rational explanation, it at least challenges it. Maybe it sounds like hippie-dippie bullshit when someone asserts just how much we all need each other or how interconnected we all are to each other, but in just the past few years biologists have begun to turn over some improbable stones and reveal some inalienable truths about how all life functions. Quantum mechanics – a field that explores how the tiniest bits of matter can’t be fully described as only physical particles or waves of energy but must be considered both at once, how a particle can somehow appear to simultaneously be in countless places all at the same time, and how one tiny particle can somehow instantaneously effect another particle – seems to play a role in everything from photosynthesis to avian navigation to the mammalian sense of smell. That last element of quantum mechanics is known as quantum entanglement, Einstein’s spooky action at a distance, which allows one tiny particle to somehow instantaneously influence another particle no matter how far apart they are.

And this perplexing activity might not just reign over the infinitesimally small, at the interstellar level wormholes may actually be an entanglement between black holes, “the same phenomena described differently.” There’s now speculation that entanglement might not only occur between two tiny particles of the same type of matter, but that entanglement may be far more ubiquitous and flexible than was once assumed. Because it seems as if entanglement may be able to occur between more than two particles at a time and between particles of different types of matter, connecting our world together to form some kind of massive spooky geometric tapestry:

It is as if entanglement can be viewed as a thread connecting two systems. When the amount of entanglement becomes larger, we have lots of threads, and these threads could weave together to form the fabric of space-time. –

And if entanglement forms the fabric of space-time, our entire understanding of the universe – of what space itself is and how time flows – is about to be challenged. Which might not mean too much for your everyday life, but keep in mind that although our brains may seem like only three-pound lumps of flesh and seawater, their complexity – ninety-billion neurons and some ninety-billion other glial cells forming hundreds of trillions of connections modulated by countless different neurotransmitters – puts the old all the grains of sands on all the world’s beaches or all the stars in the universe ideas of complexity entirely to shame, and leaves lots of room for revolutions.

There’s actually one already in progress, as neuroscientists are beginning to realize that glial cells, once thought only to provide support to the electrical-conducting neurons, might actually be central to learning, cognition, memory, and consciousness. It turns out that glia, once thought to be just glue cells, “far exceed neurons in cellular diversity, cell numbers, and functions” and unlike neurons may be able to account for the large-scale and long-term neural changes necessary for complex cognitive processes like consolidating memory and orchestrating brain functions that occur simultaneously in overlapping brain regions.

Tellingly, although the neurons and the overall architecture of Einstein’s brain is nearly identical to yours, his brain has twice the number of glial cells as the average human brain – with the highest number found “in the brain region where abstract concepts, visual imagery, and complex thinking take place.” And although glial cells can’t communicate using electrical impulses like neurons, they use calcium ions to communicate non-electrically and may eventually “fracture the worn-out electronic metaphor of the brain.”

Since one glial cell can engulf over 100,000 synapses and turn collections of neurons into functional assemblies by coordinating and regulating their signaling, it’s beginning to seem almost self-evident that “much of the intriguing complexity evident in learning and cognition in the human brain” is due to glial cells working communally and collectively inside our skulls using mechanisms we’re only just beginning to discover.

And although there isn’t yet any evidence that entanglement occurs within our brains, or that any of us are entangled to each other in the same demonstrable way that two photons can be to each other, if it turns out that entanglement exists across the millions and millions of light years that separate black holes – than the idea that the people we meet and the lives we touch are all part of something incomprehensible, something that could transcend our everyday understanding of space and time, at least edges its way toward being more than just a metaphor. Either way, you owe an irrepayable debt to the community that shaped you. And whether or not it helps to think of entanglement linking you those who exist alongside you, if only for a moment, as they’re inevitably and forever affected by your each crime and every kindness – your life will never be your own.

Someday this meat-wagon you’re riding will reach the end of its line. And regardless of what comes next for you, the lives of those who will come after you are depending on you to do everything you can to look out for them any way you possibly can. Whether you want to look at our connections to each other and the ways our communities influence us as inescapable biological realities or as something more poetic, as your past is woven into their futures the very next choice you make – the next hand you hold, the next teammate you help up, the next friend you don’t give up on – is going to affect everything that happens next.


3 thoughts on “our lives are not our own

  1. I am fascinated and hope to find time to read more. Daniel, I know you haven’t seen traffic from TBP yet, but let me assure you, I believe there are several readers there who are going to like your background, your outlook and your research.

    Thank your for your patience setting up the connection.

  2. Thank you for this. The last sentence of your essay reminds me of my favorite line in a novel — the last sentence of George Eliot’s _Middlemarch_:

    But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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