by John Bell
For years in the 1970s I taught ongoing peer counseling classes in my home in Harlem. A woman we will call Ellen (the names of the two characters have been changed to honor confidentiality and safety.) had been in one of these classes for about a year. The class was a multi-racial and multi-class group of 16 people. In the mix was a nuclear engineer, a couple of Puerto Rican mothers from a community school in East Harlem where I worked, a therapist, several radical political activists, a Harvard trained economist, a minister, and a couple of artists. Ellen was a heavyset, Irish working class, salt of the earth woman, who was married to an Italian guy. They lived in East Harlem with their two young sons. She loved the counseling. Each week she would “co-counsel” with someone in the class, and participate in the weekly group class. She was making great strides in her life, opening up to her own power and capabilities, undoing layers of internalized women’s and working class oppression. She was getting more confident. Her leadership was coming out.
During the class and her sessions, she would often talk about her husband, Dino. She loved Dino, she told us in these confidential settings, but she was disturbed by his “job”: he was a hit man for the mafia. He was the guy who would pull up alongside of the targeted car, roll the window down, and blast the other guy away with a shotgun. Dino would drop Ellen off at class and pick her up at the end. He had a stereotypical thug look—short, stocky and strong, thick neck, and thick speech. Needless to say, I was very respectful whenever I met him.
After about a year in the class, Ellen came to me one night and said that Dino wanted to join. “Join what?” I said. “Join the class,” she said. I was stunned for a moment. I asked why. It seemed that she had been going home and telling him about the class and what was happening for her in her counseling sessions. He could see she was making moves. He was curious. I took a deep breath and said okay.
Dino came to the class the next week. The group sat in a circle of chairs. There was one large, comfortable wing chair with deep red plush upholstery. Dino claimed that chair, and no one objected. He pushed the chair way back into the corner of the room, far out of the circle, and sat there with his arms crossed over his chest. He sat there, not saying a thing…week… after week… after week! Other members of the class would come up to me in the breaks and whisper things like, “What is going on with Dino? It’s weird.” I would say, “I don’t know, but I do know one thing. He keeps coming back.”
Dino had been watching and listening carefully, checking me out, checking out the other members of the class. Just like each one of us, Dino needed to know how safe it was to talk about what was deep in his heart. Each of us has our own timeline, our own conditions necessary to feel safe. One evening, after several months of watching, Dino said, “I wanna talk.” He scooted his chair up into the circle, and told us his story, which went something like this.
“I grew up in East Harlem, which then was mostly an Italian neighborhood. When I was 10 years old, I got polio. I wore braces on my legs and was gimpy. The neighborhood boys would make fun of me and beat the shit out of me. The only way I could survive was to get tough as nails. The older guys saw something in me and said, ‘Hey, we got a job for you’. They protected me and gave me respect. As I got older, they had me doing some terrible things. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life.” Everyone in the class knew what he was talking about. Then he lowered his eyes and his voice, paused, and then said quietly, “I don’t wanna to do it no more.”
There was rapt attention. Half the people were in tears. Suddenly, this thug, this hit man, this menacing presence, became a real person whose struggles were understandable and whose pain drew out our compassion. Dino began counseling with others in the group on a regular basis. He let himself laugh a little, and show his sweetness. He would edge up to his stored fear and find anger waiting there. Little by little he began to trust us. We proved that we could listen without judging him, not shrink when he would talk about the “terrible things”, and could handle his fear and anger without flinching. We showered him with genuine appreciation, which made him giggle. By the end of the first cycle of classes, Dino was actually hugging people, if a little stiffly, even the guys. He became a beloved member of the group. He had never been listened to and loved and accepted like that before. It was a marvel to him.
At time went by, Ellen came more and more into her own, and eventually left Dino. For his part, he eventually moved out of East Harlem and cut his ties to the mafia. I have lost contact with him, but last I heard, he was doing fine.
I am forever grateful for the lessons of this experience: Listen well. Don’t judge a book by its cover. People take their own time to show themselves. The conditions for safety are different for each of us. Never give up because transformation is possible for anyone. Hold fast to the inherent worth of every human being. With time and the right conditions, every person moves spontaneously toward their true nature.
John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher who lives near Boston, MA, USA. He is a founding staff and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning, earning, and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. He is an author, lifelong social justice activist, international trainer facilitator, father and grandfather. His blog is www.beginwithin.info and email is firstname.lastname@example.org.(03)