September 21, 2012

How Should I Respond To a Failure?

My latest mentee in the prison ministry program has blown it, big time. There are indications he has started up with drugs again, moved out of the ministry's halfway house training center, and is probably on his way back to prison when the parole officers catch up with him.

Regular readers of this blog know I invest a lot of my volunteer time and effort into prison ministry. I believe quiet strongly that a faith-based transitional program is one of the few ways for an just-released inmate to have even a fighting chance of making it on the outside. These men and women have made serious mistakes, paid the price, and are committed to turning their lives around. Even though society makes it as difficult as possible for them to succeed, I have seen the good this program can accomplish. I have also seen what happens when someone just can't control his internal demons.

There is really no way to predict who will make a go of it and who will be back wearing orange behind bars. We can conduct all the one-on-one meetings in the world, work through books designed to strengthen someone's faith, offer unconditional love and support, and surround them with all the tools needed to start anew. But, if there are issues and personality traits that can't be tamed or controlled, then that person will fail.

This is not the first time I have "lost" one of the men I work with. But, a few months ago when I picked this fellow up as he walked out of prison, I was feeling good about his chances. He gave every indication he wasn't going to follow the same path of failure. He had children he adored and wanted to be part of their lives again. His marriage was on life support but he seemed ready to put that behind him and focus on what he must do to stay strong and free.

Over the last few weeks I had begun to notice problems. His temper would flare and he'd have a hard time controlling it. His attitude toward others was often rude and aggressive. When confronted with a situation that required him to step back, he'd take a giant step forward and make things worse. He understood that this program was his best chance to get back into his kids' lives and be a positive influence for them. But,  he simply couldn't keep from making bad choices that made that outcome impossible.

His spiritual life was becoming non-existent. He didn't exhibit a truly changed heart or an understanding that God had a plan for him. Instead, he willfully insisted on his way to satisfy his desires. There was no conception of the long term consequences of his actions and decisions. 

His phone calls became sporadic. His response to e-mails and tests became non existent. I was scheduled to go see him a few nights ago but was notified he hadn't come home for two nights (and counting) so there was no point in driving to the center to meet with him. He had vanished.

Eventually he called the director to tell him he was back on drugs and wasn't returning. The parole officer was notified and the wheels started to turn. Even then, the ministry offered him one final chance to stop his fall before it was too late. He rejected the offer and was officially in violation of his parole.

I was angry, upset, disappointed, and frustrated. His failure reflected poorly on me and the ministry. We know not everyone will take the opportunity offered them. Ultimately the individual makes the choices that determine his fate. But, we'd be less than human if something like this didn't bother all of us involved with this man and his future and cause us to wonder if we could have done things differently to help him.

Now what? I'll lick my wounds and jump back into the battle. I'll start again to travel to the prison in northeast Arizona once a month to meet with other men who say they want the same chance this fellow had. Eventually, one of these men will become my next mentee and I'll try again.

Whether it is working as a volunteer, being a parent or grandparent, teaching others, starting or running a business, writing a book, or simply being a member of the human race, a failure cannot be allowed to be more than a temporary setback.

Sure, it hurts. Yes, I wish this guy had been part of my life for another 5 months until he had succeeded in re-launching his life. But, I will not let his decision affect my decision to be part of this prison ministry organization. If I did, his bad choices would have even greater negative consequences than they already have. I won't give failure that kind of power.

41 comments:

  1. Unfortunately you can't save everyone. But you do such an amazing service. Really, you do. How many of us out here who read your blog would even think about doing what you are doing in retirement? Not many I think.

    Just saving one person is more than anyone could hope for.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Roberta. Personally I don't see what I do any any tougher than a teacher getting through to a child with a problem in school or a business owner who hires a handicapped person or a parent who fights to keep her son safe in a rough neighborhood. Or, frankly, any of us who simply try to live a good life in an increasingly bad world. But, I deeply appreciate your support.



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  2. Of course Bob you have exactly the right attitude about this. I personally see the same thing in the homeless shelter/ soup kitchen where I volunteer. One person I got to know said his father got him and his ten year old brother hooked on meth and has been in and out of jail for the last ten years. He said he was now 10 months clean and he was going to keep it up. I told him I would pray for him and be a friend when he needed it. He stayed at the mission four about a month and then just disappeared. That usually means he is back in the dark side.

    We see so many of these type guys there but we also celebrate some successes. You have to concentrate on the successes and just try to learn from the ones that didn't make it. Keep chugging Bob, you are making a difference...

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    1. I should have mentioned homeless shelter workers in my answer to Roberta's comment. The work you do there is really down in the trenches giving another fellow human the basics: food and shelter. Some of the folks are there do to their own bad choices or a childhood that left too many scars. Others are simply victims of the times and got caught in a situation that left them with nothing.

      Regardless, they are are brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help. Bless you, RJ, and all those who take time to lift someone up who has tripped and fallen without judgment or condemnation.

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  3. I am curious. Do you ever worry about your persoanl safety or the safety of your wife and home should one of these men get angry at you? I'm sure many of them have bad tempers and unstable personalities that helped to land them in prison to begin with. And if they should return to drugs like this guy, who knows what thoughts may be rambling around in their heads. Do they know your real identity and where you live, etc.. or do you use a fictious identity while working with them?

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    1. I was only worried the first time I went into a prison. Until I am absolutely sure about a man and his character he doesn't come to my home. During his time in prison when I write to him I use the ministry's address to receive his letters.

      I have had mentees at my home to join my family for Thanksgiving dinner, but only after my daughter agreed to allow these fellows to be with her children (my grandkids) and I was convinced it was safe.

      I do use my real name so someone could track me down if they wanted to. But, even when they do what the fellow in this post did, I am not perceived to be part of their problem or someone they are angry with.

      I feel perfectly safe.

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  4. Life is a numbers game. A baseball player can bat 250 and be considered good, if he bats 300 + he is great. A basketball player who shoots around 50% is pretty good, but at free throws the number needs to 90%+. A hockey player may make one goal per game and might be considered hot.

    A biblical scholar wrote that if you save one life it is as if you saved the whole world.

    Keep up the good work. You're doing better than me.

    Warren
    http://65andalive.blogspot.com

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    1. Thaanks for putting it into perspective, Walter.

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  5. I'm so sorry this happened to you. I dohope you will continue with your program and it sounds like you will. Without going into it further, I will say that no one who has not an addict knows what it is like to be addicted (be it alcohol, drugs, food or anything else). Once the physical addition is there, the chance of leaving that sickness behind is extremely difficult. It's offen not even a "choice".

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    1. Addiction is a terrible master. Whether it is drugs or alcohol, pornography or watching sports...it doesn't matter. Addiction can overwhelm even what we want to do. As you note, there often isn't even a choice.

      No worries. This isn't my first rodeo. I have fallen off before and continue to get back on the horse.

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  6. No, Bob, it does not reflect poorly on you. That is the nature of drug addiction. I have mentored many women over the last 20 years who have substance abuse issues. The great majority fail. I look forward to the successes.

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    1. Thanks, Linda.

      Are you in Albany for the Veteran's meeting? I'm sure you will find lots of women who respond well to your husband's excellent book.

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  7. Bob, in a major coincidence (hmm, are there such things as coincidences?) I just read the following from a gentleman I've come to respect tremendously with regard to matters of the spirit, Gary Zukov. He posted the following this morning about why we sometimes feel pain when others hurt or disappoint us. As always, it does always circle back to us, and the unconscious - http://www.oprah.com/relationships/Gary-Zukav-Why-People-Hurt-Us-and-How-to-Stop-Them

    We never, ever know what seeds we may plant in our interactions with other people. Sometimes the seeds lay dormant for a time, but that doesn't mean the individual wasn't impacted. We all come to our truths in our own time. It takes some of us much longer than others.

    Be well.

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    1. Planting seeds is so true. The man who runs the prison ministry made the same point in an e-mail to me. We just don't know if (or when) things will sink in. All we can do is keeping sowing.

      I'll check out Gary's post. Thanks for the link.

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  8. Bob,first I want to say that I am sorry this happened and that I will pray that God lifts you up with His strength as you rebound. You planted a "good seed" and it may lay dormant and thrive at a later date. We do not know God's timing...we are just challenged to do good and leave it in His hands. Thank you for what you do! Keep on, keepin' on!

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    1. You and Tamara both make the very important and valid point that what we do may not have noticeable or timely payoff. It is all in God's hands anyway.

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  9. Hi Bob,
    I was at a Habitat for Humanity meeting on Wednesday when our Director shared the news that the organization had repossessed a home this week (that almost never happens) - the homeowner had returned to a life of drugs and alcohol and was not maintaining the mortgage.
    You could feel the collective sadness and sense of failure throughout the room, but the thing that not one person felt is that the time and effort spent helping this individual was wasted. She might have failed, but so many others succeed because of our efforts.
    We all know you will continue to plant seeds of hope.

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    1. Interesting. I'm sure what you described happens occasionally but this is the first instance I have read about.It is a an excellent case in point since the homeowner had to invest many hours of sweat equity into the home, knew what was at stake, and still couldn't overcome the power of an addiction.

      We can't ever give up, can we? That allows the bad stuff to win.

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  10. Bob, Thank you for sharing this story. Sometimes all we hear about are the success stories. Then when we volunteer and don't experience the same success right away we think there's something wrong, either with us or with the organization. Volunteering can be very frustrating at times and it's important to learn to not take failures personally. Too many people walk away from volunteer opportunities because they don't get immediate or constant gratification. It's vital to remember that it isn't just about you (me) but about the organization you are working for and the people it is serving. One disappointment doesn't doom the whole program. You just have to keep plugging away and hope that something you do is going to help someone, somewhere, someday.

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    1. You make an important point, Cindy. There are comments left on this blog that reflect exactly what you are saying: volunteer work is too frustrating because of a sense the work is for nothing.

      But, that is almost never true. The goals are bigger than the person. And, volunteers do often feel good about what they can accomplish, but that isn't the point. It is a by-product.

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  11. Bob - I would rename the post. It's not a failure... it's a setback. Yes - he'll have to live with the consequences of his decision, but the fact is that you have shown him that there IS an alternative. That alone is a positive - and you can't construe his regression as a failure on your part (or even on his).

    Many members of my family work within the prison system and some run programs to help soon-to-be-released people cope with life outside the walls. They tell me the same thing: a lot of prisoners "find religion" since it looks good at future parole hearings. For some, it becomes a lasting positive presence. For others, it was a convenient shield. You can't really know which is which until they are free and start to confront the temptations that are out there.

    Long story short: YOU haven't failed. You showed him an alternative and, with any luck, that may put him back on the right path after this latest stumble.

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    1. If all the jail house conversions lead to lasting religious beliefs we'd need to build as many churches as prisons. Thanks, Nuiloa. Your experience through family members is helpful.

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    2. Lol! I had a vision of a large penitentiary completely surrounded by cathedrals.

      Just think of it this way - a little bitterness now and then makes the sweet taste sweeter.

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  12. Oh, Bob, I'm sorry. I know from my own experience trying to help a certain young person in my life how frustrating and disappointing it is to see them want to change but not want it bad enough. Blessings to you for your continued efforts.

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    1. You know in your heart a certain course will help, yet it is rejected. It feels like a rejection of you, but, of course, it is not. It is simply that person's choice that he or she believes will serve them best.

      Readers: look for my review of Galen's fabulous new book in a few weeks.

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  13. Thank you, and may God bless you for trying.

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  14. I am very sorry Bob. This failure is a big loss for both of you. My thought are with you and the man that could not find his way.

    Barbara

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    1. Thank you Anna and Barbara for your concerns.

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  15. Thanks Bob for sharing this. An investment such as the one you made in this man's life is nothing short of amazing. Your ability to try not to personalize it is inspiring. When we emotionally, psychologically and physically invest ourselves in another person's life, the outcome is often nothing short of amazing. Times like this where we have done our very best, and the person has chosen another path, the disappointment can be heartbreaking.

    I have always felt that when we give of ourselves to others, what we get in return is always greater. Even in times like this, it is satisfying to know that we have done our very best. Not everyone has what it takes to do what you are doing. You have the gift, and you are using it in a way that will forever change people's lives.

    Carole

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    1. In situations like this I fall back on one of the keys to my faith: God has a plan for everyone and it is a perfect plan. Obviously, the timing was wrong or the way things were evolving was not in line with God's ultimate way for this fellow. Taking this view makes it a lot easier to accept "failure."

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    2. I agree. I also feel that we always have a choice (something I am dealing with). Free Choice to love and give of yourself is an amazing thing. Free choice to reject that love is a sad statement of a deeper hurt than many of us can understand.

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  16. You did your best and now you have to let it go. There is no way to know why this man made the choices he made.
    You didn't fail. There is still the remote possibility that he will make a better choice.

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    1. I am already on the path to mentoring another fellow who gets released next March. One thing about this program: their need for volunteers is so great that they don't allow you to wallow in the past!

      And, yes, this guy may eventually get it all together after he goes back to prison to finish the rest of his sentence. I certainly pray it will be so.

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  17. Do you generally meet once a month? Are others also mentoring him, or is it just you? I don't see it as a failure on your part, but on his. You asked how should you respond? I think exactly as you did. You try to help someone else. Thanks for helping others. As a writer, I am fascinated to hear their personal stories. What caused this to happen in their life?

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    1. We are supposed to meet once a week and talk on the phone at least 2-3 times a week. That's why I noticed rather quickly that there was a major problem.

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  18. We can only be responsible for ourselves. No matter how hard you try and how great your intentions it's up to the person we're trying to help to be up to the challenges ahead of them. I've been through this with my brothers. It's painful. If our intentions are true and we can say we did the best we could with what we had there's nothing to feel guilty about.

    We can only hope they turn things around before it's too late. Ultimately only God knows how that will work out.

    You do a great and needed service that most can't handle. That's something to feel good about.
    b

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    1. I do feel good, but disappointed. I wonder what it will be like if I run into this fellow again during my monthly visit to the prison he is likely to return to.

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    2. If you meet again after he's back behind bars perhaps he'll think about the opportunity he blew. Could be a good thing.

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  19. Thank you for this post; it is a great reminder of the balance of life, up & down, good & bad from a human judgment. I sometimes have trouble remembering that everything is in God's time, not mine. I do better when I remember, "It will be all right in the end; if it's not all right, it's not the end." Planting seeds is such a useful concept & reminds me that I am only God with skin on in this life, NOT God.

    I also greatly appreciate your work; many of those folks will come back to our communities; the question is HOW will they come back? With hope, and a chance, or no vision of a course different than their past life? Thank you for being God with skin on for those folks.

    I suspect when you see your former mentee in prison again, you'll be courteous & compassionate with no blame. That attitude comes through your writing.

    As a food addict, I can swear that addiction, no matter how hard someone works at breaking it, is one of the most insidious of enemies.

    Great post!

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  20. It doesn't sound like your program really allows for it (too many other folks in line who need mentoring and not enough mentors) but it would be good if you were available if this guy wants to try again with you when he gets out the next time. One of my adopted daughters' birthmother took five stabs at rehab before she finally gave up drugs for good--by that time she had lost her home, her children, her health. But, five drug-free years later, she tells me that she got something valuable from each try at sobriety and it all finally came together the fifth time she went for it. That time, she reached out to the person who had helped her the most during her second unsuccessful attempt and that person got her into the program that finally worked for her.

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    1. If the man wants to try again and the program accepts him I could be available. Normally, a man or woman must have close to one year left on his or her sentence so there is enough time to go through the various study courses and try to assess that person's likelihood of success. This individual was allowed into the program with only 4 months to go and the results are obvious.

      But, your point is well taken. Often the first stab at a life change doesn't "take." Repeated attempts are needed. Thanks for your thoughts, Grace. Who knows, it may work out for him.

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