Trouble And What It Taught Me
In the New York Times on January 9, 2012, the editorial “Paying the Price, Long After the Crime” read “A stunning number of young people are arrested for crimes in this country, and those crimes can haunt them for the rest of their lives.” It went on to say that about half of American males will be arrested for a non-traffic offense between the ages of 18 and 23.
Where I’m from, small-town, Midwestern kids get caught drinking in high school. That’s the most common non-traffic offense my friends and I experienced. Cops like to bust parties and arrest kids. It’s their way of making you familiar with the police state at an early age.
For a lot of teenagers their first minor in possession is a rite of passage. Almost a badge of honor. Getting caught means you’re living a life of your own beyond school and your parents. Get an M.I.P., do the community service, try not to get another one before you turn of age. Learn to run faster from parties. Always tell your friend who is driving when you see a cop.
With five alcohol-related tickets before I was 20, I probably got in more party trouble than your average Nebraskan youth. The fines and rehab and jail time were a waste of money, but not a waste of time. Having the world collapse on you imparts a lot of valuable lessons. You learn that the government wants to make money off of you. That your freedom can be taken away. That being locked up with people with real problems provides perspective.
For a lot of reasons, this time in my life has always been hard to talk about. I can’t really tell stories about going to rehab or jail without feeling ashamed. I have a few good anecdotes about jail — how the food got made, how there were guys smoking weed on the basketball court.
Jail was mostly embarrassing and depressing. And not depressing in the way a movie or a song or a comment about Afghanistan is depressing, but depressing in that it caused real depression. The actual time in jail itself was a breeze. But when you’re young and still dependent on your family for so much, no matter how terribly you’re getting along with them, to disappoint them at that level turns into guilt that’s far worse than any week-long stint in a minimum security prison where you get to wear your own clothes, play basketball and read.
It teaches you that the worst, longest-lasting, most depressing feeling you ever have in your life is when you screw up and let the people that care about you down. When you do something stupid enough that your parents change the way they feel about you. The only real salve for it is time, but we all have long memories. We’re not very good at forgiving, and nothing ever heals all the way once it’s broken.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” While that’s true, your failures matter just as much as your successes, if not more. How well you recover from them matters most of all.
Making mistakes has always been a necessary part of growing up to be a good person — I have a hard time trusting people who have never gone through any hard times in their life.
But becoming depressed or sad about your life because you got caught only means that the cops have power over you. This can’t be allowed. I’m more ashamed that I got depressed while I was in jail than that I had I go to jail.
Still, for a long time I didn’t think that screwing up would matter in the long run. The truth is, it took a lot of living to learn that not caring about consequences didn’t make them any less real. All the trouble taught me that everything counts; everything matters. Even if some of it was bad luck, or I didn’t deserve it anymore than anyone else did, or it was just the result of some asshole cop having a bad day, I still had to own up to my actions. I had to admit that I had put myself there, allowed myself to be trapped and run down and locked up.
America’s police force is there to make money off of you as much as it there to protect you. I’m too consumer-aware to spend my dollars that way. No one likes letting the police win.
Although getting treated badly by governments is nothing new and miniscule in comparison to what people in a lot of other places endure — watch just one documentary on North Korea — having your freedom held from you is something you never really get over. It’s an ugly lesson to have to learn at a young age, but it’s a valuable one.
The thing about making mistakes and getting in real trouble is that as long as it doesn’t do you any real long-term damage, like barring you from being able to get a job or wrecking your family completely, you come away from it smarter, stronger. Better able to deal with adversity, with tough times. Because even if you do pull yourself out of whatever problems you’re having at the time, life still has a way of testing your resolve.
Just try not to get busted, whatever you do. And, as always, f-ck the police.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”