In “De Profundis,” one of many essays he wrote while in prison, Oscar Wilde expressed the following observation on a society’s relative well-being and its treatment of people who are incarcerated:
“The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are. In their eyes prison is a tragedy in a man’s life, a misfortune, a casualty, something that calls for sympathy in others. They speak of one who is in prison as of one who is ‘in trouble’ simply. It is the phrase they always use, and the expression has the perfect wisdom of love in it.
“With people of our own rank it is different. With us, prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. ... Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary. ... We are denied the one thing that might heal us and keep us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain.”
This, to me, goes to the heart of what troubles America today, and is behind much of the violent crime from which we suffer.
When people lack confidence in their future, they recognize their own vulnerability to calamity and see that their only protection is in caring for each other.
This, I think, tends to breed a sense of common experience, and the empathy that comes from that.
Consequently, when a citizen gets “in trouble,” so long as it is not due to chronic behavior that threatens the community’s survival, people think, “That could just as likely have been me,” and treat the person with care and forgiveness.
Is this what we see today among middle- and upper-class Americans?
When we see a story in the news about someone who is convicted of a crime, how often do we proudly proclaim, “Well, the dirt bag had it coming,” and move on with our lives, giving no thought whatsoever to the long-term consequences to them and their family?
When people suffer a common calamity, such as those I saw on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, they suddenly discover their common bond with all people, and work together and share as though a part of a single organism.
And then, comfort and the illusion of security having been restored, they go back behind their doors and again view everyone else as “them.”
This, to me, is an unnatural condition. And I believe that living in violation of nature’s laws is a corruption of the “divine” process, which can only bear corrupted fruit.
Wayne L. Parker