The next right thing...

The next right thing...
Photo by Lance Reis / Unsplash

“Where’d ya ride in from?”

“Bellamy Creek,” I said. “Level II,” as if the higher security level might earn me some respect.

His blank expression told the story.

Big John was not impressed.

"Yeah. Well, ya ever need anything, you let me know."  

A lot of guys say that, but they don't mean it–not like you think. And if you do 'need something,' it's best not to ask. The price is just too high. It's a trap.

But even still, when Big John said it, I believed him.  

Big John was a lumberjack of a man.

Wool cap, full beard, thick neck, and a barrel chest.

His square hips and sturdy legs carved a path wherever he went.

Other men stepped aside out of respect for Big John.

His size, presence, and quiet authority carried weight out on the yard and the cell block–something you rarely see in someone who isn't connected.

Lone wolves like John don't run with a set or a gang.

They don't need to.

They do their time in quiet solitude, staying in their own lane and minding their own business. They've got no loyalties and no obligations. It's simpler that way.

But for whatever reason, ole' John took an interest in me.

Maybe he sensed my fear. Maybe he recognized I needed a friend. I don't know. But Big John made a point out of calling me over to lift with him any time I was in the weight pit.

We didn't talk much; John and I. Just lifted together and watched each other's backs.

prisoners in orange shorts weight training and exercising
Barbells Behind Bars, Daniel Genis via T-Nation

He didn't need to befriend me like that. Just being seen with me was a liability.

But he did it anyway.

John made my time a little easier–just by association.

So, when John mentioned his parole hearing was coming up, I offered to help.

“At my last joint, I was part of a group that helped guys prepare for the Board,” I told him.

“An ex-parole board member came in and trained us how to conduct these mock parole interviews," I said.

"Just getting used to the interrogation and all the questions they’re going to ask really helps guys get over their nerves, ya know?”

Big John shrugged, curled his lip, and waved me off.

“Nah, I’m good,” he said.

This time, I'm not impressed.

By now, I know this is John’s second time in prison.

Same crime.

Nine-year sentences each.

And I know the parole board is tough on repeat offenders—good chance they’ll flop him and extend his sentence for at least another year.

But I just let my offer pass.

Instead, over the next few months, I slip in questions between the sets and reps and loading of plates, questions I know the parole board will ask, giving Big John the practice he needs.

This goes okay for a while, until one day, ole' John–he just snaps.

"Look!" he says, pointing a meaty finger.

"Don't think you're gettin' over on me, alright? I know what you're doin', and I ain't interested."

“Okay, okay, John. Take it easy," I say. "I'm just trying to help."

Big John gave me the side-eye.

"You ain't that damn smart, ya know?"

John growled, snatched up his shirt, and walked off.

We didn't talk anymore after that. Big John avoided me and went back to his lone wolf status.

And I just went back to just being alone.

Photo by Matthew Henry / Unsplash

Truth be told, John was right.

Weeks went by, but John never so much as looked in my direction.

But then, one day out on the yard, Big John walked up and just started talking.

"All those questions," he said. "All those questions and you never asked me...not once."

"Asked you what, John?"

"All those questions and you never asked me how to avoid making the same mistakes I've made."

I paused, taken aback by the sincerity in his voice.

He was right.

I was so busy pushing my knowledge on John that I hadn't stopped to consider what I could learn from him.

John hadn't lived an exemplary life–not by any means. But he'd definitely earned the wisdom that could help me avoid making the same mistakes he had.

Maybe that was the real weight John carried–his real authority–experience.

I'm not that damn smart.

Shrunken by shame, I spoke. "Damn. I'm sorry, John,"

"You're right. I've been so busy pushing what I know on you that I never thought about what you could teach me."

The big man's eyes softened.

"Well, now's your chance," he said. "If you're willing to listen."

Over the next few weeks, Big John shared his life story with me, his choices, and the consequences he faced. He spoke of his childhood, the trauma, his dreams despite his situation, the times he'd succeeded, and the moments when he took the easy way–the wrong path.

He opened up about his regrets and the things he wished he could change.

I listened carefully, absorbing his words and taking them to heart.

John's experiences showed me how similar we were, he and I. And how easy it was to slip into a series of bad choices and how hard it was to break free once you were trapped in that downward spiral.

Through his stories, I saw that I wasn't so damn smart after all. My intelligence was actually a double-edged sword.

And while it might have helped me survive in prison, it also led me down a path that landed me there in the first place.

I'd always thought I was smarter than most, but I was wrong. I wasn't fooling anyone but myself.

As the days went by, I started to see myself differently, and I realized that the key to living a good life was making the right choices, even when those choices were difficult.

So what are you going to say?

Inmates sit just a few feet from the bench at NH's Adult Parole Board hearings
Emily Corwin/NHPR

"So what are you gonna say?" I asked.

"What are you gonna say when they ask you for assurance you won't go back to your old life and habits?"

John turned and looked me dead in the eye.

"I'm gonna tell 'em the only thing I can tell 'em–the only promise I can make to anyone."

"All I can do is take each day as it comes and focus all my strength and energy on just doing the next right thing."

The next right thing.

"No, John," I objected.

That's not enough," I said. "They want more than that."

John waved me off, shook his head, and gave me that broad smile of his.

"That's all I got," he said.

"That's the best any of us can do. And that's the truth."

Turns out, it's all you need.

Big John's parole hearing finally came, and as he walked out of the prison gates a free man, I couldn't help but feel grateful.

Not because I thought I played any part in John's release.

But for our unlikely friendship and the lessons he had taught me.

Thanks to John's wisdom, I knew that when I faced the parole board, I would be better prepared–not just for the questions they would ask but for the life I would lead once I stepped outside those gates.

And that was the greatest lesson of all.

Ultimately, Big John gave me what I needed. Even though I was too arrogant to recognize it or ask for it myself.

John gave me something more valuable than any currency–the wisdom to see that the next right thing is always within my reach, no matter how lost I feel and how impossible my situation seems.