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Humans are Inconveniently Complex

Editors Note: This article first appeared on March 11, 2024 on The Corners by Nadia Bolz-Weber. You may view the original article on Substack here.

I spent last Thursday in a penitentiary Canyon City, Colorado volunteering with Breakthrough – an amazing organization working in and out of Colorado prisons (learn more here).

Step to the line.

I am one of 25 community members (retirees, teachers, business leaders, Google employees, engineers etc…) standing shoulder to shoulder in a brightly lit gym facing the 25 incarcerated men across from us (fathers, sons, artists, surfers, musicians etc..).

On the gym floor, between the two groups is a blue line on. We are asked to step to the blue line when a statement read by Stacey, the leader, applies to us, and step back when it does not. No talking. Not a sound. Between us we can only exchange eye contact and prison-approved handshakes. I can feel the fear of embarrassment electrify the air.

I’ve written in one of my books about doing this kind of thing – but then it was at a Middle School summer camp, so yeah…this time is different.

Stacey says, step to the line if:

You dropped out of High School.

You have a college degree.

Your mom was a teenager when she had you.

You grew up in a home with both biological parents.

You have had cruel things said to you. (everyone present)

You have struggled with depression.

You regularly heard gunshots in your neighborhood growing up.

You have driven a car while intoxicated. (everyone present)

You have not had a visit in more than 6 months.

The following hits the hardest for me, as I see how many men still stand at the line when the Stacey intensifies the questions:

You were under 18 when first arrested. Under 16? Under 14? Under 12? Under 10?

You have spent time in solitary confinement. More than 1 year of your life? More than 2? More than 3? More than 4? More than 5? More than 6?

As I step up to and back from the line acknowledging the conditions of my own life, I witness where those on both sides stand and my eyes sting with the truth that fills the space between us; the truth of my own pain and that of those across from me in institutionally issued clothing.

What becomes clear is how many of these men were sent into life’s ring young, blindfolded, without gloves, and with both hands tied, and then punished for kicking.

The two men directly across from me look to be in their early 20s, so young, about the age of my own son. When they do make eye contact with me, it is brief but it is enough to provide the smallest, unmistakable glimpse into the their story – a story that is more nuanced than the term “felon” would suggest.

And as always, I try also to be mindful of the very real pain they have caused in the lives of their victims and all who love them. To dismiss or ignore this is to do no one any favors. Empathy is not endorsement. But what is also true is that the sorrow I have caused in the lives of others varies only by degree.

And as I’ve said many times before, I remain committed to the truth that no one’s value can be calculated by just the sum total of their worst moments.

So I look those two young men in the eyes and think, I will not pity you.  But I will, in this moment, see even just a fraction of your pain, and acknowledge how it is like mine and very much not like mine.

Pity is just the paternalistic cousin of contempt.

In my mind, pity isn’t even analogous to compassion. Pity is just the paternalistic cousin of contempt. It allows us to see others as “those less fortunate than ourselves” (a term I loathe). Pity keeps the other person at a distance and me in a rarified state of satisfaction. I struggle to think of who would ever truly want it from another person.

Compassion, on the other hand, draws us close.

So no, I do not pity the men I met Thursday, because, like me and like you, they are complex human beings. They have experienced love I do not know about, and have really great stories I will never hear. They surely have jokes and talents and friendships I will never have the pleasure of being privy to. So to “feel sorry” for them based solely on what little I now know of their stories is reductive. Just like admiring someone for just their most glorious accomplishments is also reductive – this inevitably bites us in the ass when we discover that the civil rights attorney we respect so much can …*gasp* …be rude to their barista.

All that is to say: Humans are inconveniently complex.

Compare and Contrast

Earlier this week I spent the morning with my friend Caitlin at a local cancer center because stories and gossip and snacks with a friend make infusions go by more quickly. In the car on the way home, she asked about my father, who is quite frail and had come home from the hospital a couple days prior. I described his current state and the inevitable decline that comes from a degenerative neuromuscular disease, to which she responded, “man, there really are worse things than cancer”, which is more for her to say than I, but I get her point. “Yeah…but also, cancer is pretty fucked up, honey” was all I managed in reply. She agreed.

Perspective is a robust tool, and at the same time, just because things could be worse doesn’t mean that they are not also kinda lousy.

All I know for sure is that this world will break your heart. There’s enough sorrow to go around and for everyone to have seconds.

But this world has a thousand forms of medicine too.

I’ve yet to find healing in:



Pretending I am not hurting


Hardening myself

Standing in judgement (although it sure feels good)

But I have found it in:

Eye contact with another person who is in a tender place

The rare moments I stop filling in the blank about another person

Compassion toward myself and others

Remaining open hearted in moments I want to shut down

The times when I manage to not be so self-referential

Using my pain to see it in others rather than only in myself

Obviously these are some very scattered thoughts – so I’d love to hear what you guys have to say. What are the limits of compassion? What are its effects on you when you receive it? Has someone unfairly “filled in the blank” when it comes to you? Have you done this with someone else and realized you’re wrong? Anyone who knows me knows I am obsessed with these questions.

And as always, be gentle with yourselves. And I hope you feel seen this week and allow someone else to feel seen too.

In it with you,


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