by Doug Fencl
Special to The Leaven
I was in my driveway, still in my running car, staring at my closed garage door.
I had just driven from the federal prison in Leavenworth, yet had little recollection of the 50-minute trip back to my home.
I sat in my car for a few more minutes, got myself reoriented and back to reality.
My first thought was that I was thankful I’d managed to avoid any kind of traffic mishap or accident.
My second thought: What has just happened to me?
This, in fact, was my first real experience of a proper self-examination which, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend while driving! At that time, though, I didn’t know what to call it. I was a nonpracticing Catholic for 35 years, and self-examination, in a Catholic sense, was not something with which I was familiar.
All I knew was that during that hour drive, I was beginning to see myself differently . . . and not in a good way.
That day started normally enough. I was at the prison mentoring a couple of inmates with whom I had been working over the past few weeks. Also on that day, there happened to be a Victim Impact Seminar that I had no intention of attending — this was for criminal violators, not me. The chaplain asked me to stay, however, thinking it would be helpful with my mentoring work. I reluctantly agreed, and sat self-satisfied and indifferent in the back row.
The seminar featured conversations, both recorded and live, with victims of crime and how those crimes negatively affected their lives, as well as the lives of others.
These heartbreaking narratives all had one terrifying characteristic: One criminal action has ramifications far beyond what anyone can imagine. It’s called a “ripple effect,” as if throwing a stone into a pond and then watching the waves radiate outward. A kind of wake of unintended and unrealized injurious consequences.
In short, it was story after story of how one’s thoughtless actions not only negatively affect the victim, but also their spouse, family, friends and community. One traumatizing event, perpetrated on the innocent, with repercussions that could last for days, weeks, years and even lifetimes. And all usually begun by one individual whose world revolved around his own needs and wants — with little or no knowledge, or concern, of the firestorm he carelessly set in motion.
Responses, as one can imagine, were varied. Some continue to insist that the ripple effect didn’t apply to them, ignoring evidence to the contrary. Others kept the memories of their acts locked away, buried, refusing to confront them.
But the ones that were on their way to positive change — the courageous — began to understand the unimaginable scope of the pain and trauma their destructive behaviors had on their victims, both known and unknown.
The reactions of the participants mirrored my own in that I experienced them all. At first, I ignored, telling myself the ripple effect didn’t pertain to me. I wasn’t one of them. Then slowly, I began to realize that destructive actions, throwing rocks into the pond, precursors to the ripple effect, are not limited to those who commit crimes. Any sin we commit can be a rock thoughtlessly thrown. We are all sinners, constantly thinking, saying, and doing things that negatively affect those around us, to which we blithely don’t give a second thought.
Our self-absorbed, narrow-minded egos create a wake of destruction, in full view, just behind us. And it will stay behind us — hidden, growing, gaining momentum — unless we turn around, face it and deal with it.
It was just that wake I started to see clearly when I left the prison that day, my first real self-examination that ended at my garage door. It was the coming to term with sins forgotten, buried, ignored and offhandedly dismissed, the consequences of which I could not even imagine.
It was the recognition of the fact that there is no such thing as a victimless sin. Somewhere, someplace, somehow, selfish careless actions will always disrupt the peace that God desires for this world. And it was the recognition that I was a foolhardy, blinded participant in the destructive ripple effect process.
The burden of these realizations can be overwhelming and crushing. But when dealt with properly, through confession, the painful acknowledgment of one’s sins — rocks thrown and their insidious ramifications — removes the burden of guilt, which engenders empathy and love for the other.
Then, we can truly become participants in the positive maturation of God’s kingdom, rather than the unwitting, reckless destroyers of it. Meaningful self-examination is a potent antidote to the toxic power of the ripple effect.
Doug Fencl worked in the field of law enforcement for more than 30 years, after which he worked for almost 10 years as a mentor/counselor in prison ministry at the U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth. Fencl is a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.