A few years ago I met a man who turned up one day at a local club where I was a member. He introduced himself, appearing nervous and anxious. I am experienced at working with people with mental health problems and recognised at once his disposition. In my usual style, I welcomed him as a newcomer and spent some time chatting with him.
During the following months we met quite regularly and on occasions went out for a meal together. He was intelligent and good company; someone who I could envisage becoming a friend, although until that time he was only a “club friend”.
It must have been getting on for a year later, we were in a local restaurant and he asked if he could confide in me with some details about his life. Willingly, I offered myself as his confidante. I expected him to tell me about his mental health state. However, the news he gave me challenged all my prejudices in one go. He explained that for twenty three years he had been in a high security prison hospital after having committed a double murder. He had, since his release, been living in a hostel near my home and needed a reference for a job he wanted. Would I be prepared to give him one?
So, my beliefs that this situation challenged:-
- Life is sacred and anyone who takes another person’s life in cold blood (as he had done) is a killer first and always.
- A murderer cannot be a “nice guy” (a term I had previously used to describe this man).
- Justice in the UK is as good as it gets and when someone has served their term, they are entitled to be released and supported by the community.
- Everyone should be given a second chance.
- I do not judge people by past actions, only by present experiences.
I was having a moral dilemma; beliefs in conflict. This man had become a friend of sorts and I enjoyed his company. Should I now, having offered myself as his confidante, deny him the respect and non-judgemental response I would give to other people?
He was aware of my difficulty and acknowledged that perhaps he should not have told me. However, I realised quite quickly that this was my problem and I needed to deal with it. The only way I knew how, was to express my feelings of disquiet. We had a really interesting discussion about prejudice and how he is discriminated against by all society. He did suggest that maybe he deserved this public response. However, (as in 3 above) I cannot acknowledge that someone deserves to face discrimination. The response to his previous action had been year incarcerated.
As an equality practitioner, I say that everyone should have an opportunity to live free from prejudice and discrimination. I was giving myself a stern lesson in finding a non-judgemental response within me.
Being honest about my feelings was the foundation of getting over the difficulty and in time, and several discussions later, I was able to overcome the problem and give him the reference he needed. Contact with him didn’t last long; the probation authorities moved him on to a new area of the country; a symbol of the institutionalised discrimination he faced. All the effort he had made to find a community and a little acceptance was taken away from him.
Perhaps you are asking why I am writing this now. He, as an error on his mobile phone, rang me today. It is the first contact since he left the area nearly three years ago. We had a slightly embarrassed chat and after the call ended I reflected on the learning I went through in accepting him in my life.
I’ll end by asking you some questions. What is it that would most challenge your non-judgemental equilibrium? How would you have reacted in my position? Can you think of situations where you would discriminate?
I think that by knowing answers to these and other similar questions, is the first step in improving ones own equality practices.
Comments are welcome.