This is a very deep and complex question. Although I enjoy psychology, philosophy as well as sociology, I don’t hold a degree in any of these subjects. But the various groups I have participated in at San Quentin State Prison have given me a greater awareness as well as insight into myself. I feel as though I do have something to offer on this subject matter. My awareness of self, through all the work I have done, still expands daily.
While working towards my Associate of Arts degree, I took a class covering philosophy. This is where I was introduced to Socrates who has become my favorite philosopher. Socrates questioned why people in leadership (or who had influence) believed the way they did. Socrates was eventually killed because of his repeated questioning of the norms of society.
Socrates story had me questioning my own belief system. Most of my identity had been shaped by my environment and who society had told me I was. In school, the books I read depicted people that looked like me as being slaves or criminals. I grew up in an environment that people refer to as the ghetto. So many things in my environment told me I was on the lower end, being called a minority. As you can imagine, eventually I started accepting some of these labels.
In grade school most of the focus was on conforming to the social norms of society as well as memorization skills. Critical thinking did not play a part in my education until I started taking college classes in prison. Teachers are our first real chance to interact with a authority figure outside of the home. Teachers are in charge of helping young minds find who they are in this world. This is a hard task with classrooms being overcrowded, as individuality is not a top priority.
This type of environment breeds the herd mentality. Then, as a society, we ask why gangs are so prevalent among our youth. Yesterday while eating dinner with a friend, he started making fun of the way I was eating my food. I don’t like my food to touch each other, so I eat each part of my meal separately. At the time I did not know there was a national directive on how to eat. I think about how many people would’ve changed the way they had been eating in order to further hide their individuality.
I believe many of us in society don’t understand ourselves because we were never given a chance to get to know ourselves. Much of what we know about ourselves comes from someone telling us who we are supposed to be. It took me coming to prison to realize who I am not, and now each day I wake up in search of a better understanding of who I really am. I do this by separating my thoughts of myself from the expectations placed on me by others. I guess that is why I enjoy philosophy so much, because it isn’t about achieving knowledge, it is about the pursuit of it.
All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. Twitter: @TLM