Letter from England

by Stephen W. Lewis

For almost two years now I have been working with young offenders in the English Borstal System. (Borstal is the name used in Great Britain for a reformatory.) Their ages and types range from fifteen-year-old schoolboys to young men of twenty-one. By the time these trainees (as they are referred to) reach borstal they have usually served a number of previous custodial sentences of one sort or another. Even a fifteen-year-old can be quite criminally sophisticated after such an apprenticeship!

I have felt privileged to be able to work in an environment where the atmosphere is so depressingly colored by the thoughts and anxieties of these young people. How else could I possibly have known how they think and feel about the world, about life, and about themselves? After hours of talking with them I have been able to build up something of a picture of what goes on in their minds.

"What do you think of the world, and your life in it outside?" I must pose this question daily to at least one of my trainees. Invariably the reply which comes back goes something like, "It's great, Sir, I mean on the out, you can just take what you want. You only live once so I'm going to enjoy myself." So much is tied up in what these young people say. Behind this outward facade of arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world, there exist very insecure people who are prone to such great changes of emotion from elation to depression within minutes. There is no disputing the fact that they are very disturbed. They are experiencing a fierce battle within themselves. One moment they are ready to take on the world, and the next they may be found crying in a corner. And why do they have to live this way? Ignorance, but not just their own ignorance. It is through their parents' ignorance, who may have failed to provide them with a code of conduct which would inspire them from an early age and perhaps have kept them clear of trouble. It is through the ignorance of their teachers, who perhaps could only instill in them the need to be successful when they were the very ones who always seemed to be struggling for academic survival at the bottom of the class. But even more than all this it is through the ignorance of a society which is all too ready to brand them as failures, the dregs of humankind who should be removed from society as a punishment.

If one examines the background of these unfortunates, the familiar story is revealed time and again: raised in areas of material poverty and denied parental love and affection, they receive no encouragement to do well. And so once at school they fall behind and out of the teacher's eye-for-success.

Where then does our duty lie in helping these young people? They have been told over and over again that they are no good, until they have come to believe it themselves, and so go through life living out their reputations to the full. They become suspicious of kindness and generosity; sincerity they do not recognize because such emotions and higher human qualities do not fit into their belief that the fittest alone will survive.

The truth is we cannot help these young people, not until they are ready to be helped. They will not change themselves until they are ready in themselves to change. What is more, many of them already know this in their own hearts. They say so themselves. But ideas are so powerful. For as long as they can remember they have nurtured ideas of selfishness, deceit, and dishonesty, as being the way things are. Yet from time to time some of them experience pangs of guilt and a feeling of uneasiness about their way of life. They are aware that society rejects their standards, but they try to cope with this by finding comfort and companionship within their own underworld. Even so, many do feel something gnawing deep within them. This confusion about themselves and their real divine nature denies them the understanding of what their inner battle is all about.

It is here that we are perhaps failing in our duty. We are not required to provide for them food and a good home, or the latest in fashion clothes, or indeed to tell the parents, teachers, social workers, or whoever, how they should raise these young people. The world is full of so many individuals with all the answers, all too ready to impose their views on others. No, our duty is to show the youth where their duty lies -- with themselves; not the outer personality which has got them into so much trouble, but their inner self of which they are sadly ignorant. They sense its presence, but no one has pointed out to them its existence.

When an opportunity has arisen in my daily routine, I have talked a little to some of these young people about the possibilities of a manifold human nature, natural justice, and man's place in the universe. They have found it puzzling how such a person, who to them represents the powers that keep them in borstal, can express such strange and interesting ideas.

A few hours, days, or even many weeks later, out of the blue one of them will bring the topic back up in conversation. The seed has been sown. It is for him to cultivate and nourish it so that one day he may sow his own seeds. To talk to these people about life after death, reincarnation, the law of karma, and the immortality of the spirit, reorients for a moment their patterns of thought. They begin to question for themselves.

Our duty is not to impose these ideas on anyone, but to make them available so that perhaps one day just one small seed may fall on ground ready to accept the wisdom which theosophy holds for all humanity. These young people are our brothers traveling the same journey through life. They may be waylaid for a while, but let us always remember . . . there, but for the grace of God, go I.

(From Sunrise magazine, October 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)

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