SECTION II – Chapter no 4: Stories of Transformative Awe

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life


How Others’ Kindness, Courage, and Overcoming Inspire Awe

Over time, these last forty years, I have become more and more invested in

making sure acts of goodness (however casual or deliberate or misapplied . . .) produce language. Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate

evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge.


San Quentin State Prison is a level-two prison located on San Francisco Bay. It houses 4,500 prisoners—the men in blue— including those sentenced to execution in California. In 2016, I first

visited inside to give a talk as part of an inmate-led restorative justice (RJ) program, which served two hundred men.

On the night before my first visit, I looked over the instructions for visitors: Wear greens, beiges, browns, and grays—colors with no ties to gangs and which correctional officers can easily distinguish from the blues that prisoners wear, should things get out of hand. Don’t touch the inmates. No drugs. And don’t bring in weapons.

One reason for giving the talk that day was my interest in restorative justice. My deeper reason for going was being moved to awe in reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Those two books archive the big idea of U.S. history: the subjugation of people of color by a succession of social systems, from the genocide of Indigenous people to slavery to mass incarceration. The awe I felt reading those books opened my mind to wonder about the everyday horrors of the U.S. caste system: about the chokehold a friend, now a

professor at Stanford, had been subjected to as a teen when stopped by the police; about how an Indigenous friend was asked to leave a pharmacy when getting medicine for her parents; about how a Mexican American student of mine called his grandparents each night about the latest movements of ICE; about seeing a prizewinning honors student at Berkeley, who grew up unhoused, pick at his food suspiciously because of a lifetime of chronic hunger. Awestruck by these books, I was drawn inside San Quentin.

On the day of the visit, a handful of other RJ volunteers and I made our way to the dusty waiting room near the first security gate. Waiting amid wives and mothers and friends and children of the prisoners inside, we took in an art exhibit created by the prisoners—drawings, woodcuts, and paintings of flowers, sunsets, bay views, and faces of family members. It was my first encounter that day with how prisoners seek in so many ways to surface what is good in who they are—allowing goodness its own speech, as Toni Morrison put itAt the second security gate, we showed our IDs to guards standing in a plexiglass booth. Once approved, we passed through massive doors, the echoing clank of the locks astonishing in their sound of finality.

Inside San Quentin we were escorted into the prison chapel, where I grabbed a seat in the pews amid 180 men in blue. The chapel walls were bright, reflecting a pure white light glancing through the fog off the bay. The men in blue were almost all men of color, something rapper Tupac Shakur anticipated in his song “Changes” from 1998, as harshening drug laws filled U.S. prisons:

It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact

The penitentiary is packed, and it’s filled with blacks.

The morning began with ceremonies from different religions: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish. A prisoner named Grey Eagle performed on a wooden flute a sacred song from his Native American tribe, the reedy,

rising notes taking our shared awareness out beyond the windows of the chapel. The morning culminated in a haka war dance led by a prisoner named Upu, 280 pounds of muscle and a force on his prison softball team. Polynesian haka dances symbolize the shimmering energy of Hine-raumati, the wife of the Polynesian sun god. She herself is an image seen in the vibrating heat that rises from the ground on hot days. This dance involves squatting with bulging biceps, fierce shouts, and threat faces of widened eyes, open mouths, and tongue displays. Upu led six enormous Polynesian islanders in the dance, shaking the room with their stomps and calls. The prisoners in the pews a few feet away watched with widened eyes and slightly open mouths.

When we mingled with the men in blue at break time, they shared pictures of their artwork. They unfolded and read carefully crafted letters to a grandmother or father. They spoke of victims and of mothers mourning lost lives. Those on the outside living privileged lives, like me, have stories that follow a coherent pattern, like the jacket copy for a novel. The stories the men in blue tell are elliptical and metaphorical, like poems—words reaching to translate chaotic, violent forces—and move with the punctate cadences of rap and the elongated tones of a sermon narrating redemption. The stories begin with youthful transgressions that I would have been locked up for were it not for the color of my skin—using drugs, selling them, shoplifting, trespassing, driving recklessly. And then fate-changing violence.

Here is my memory of one:

I grew up in a whorehouse. My dad was gone before I was born. My mom was hooked on crack cocaine. She was pimped out by my stepdad. My living room was always full of people partying. I started doing knuckleheaded things when I was ten—drugs, break-ins, carjackings. My stepdad gave me a gun when I was twelve. He tried to pimp out my sister. We got into a fight in our living room. I killed him.

And . . .

One day, two guys from a gang came to my cousin’s house, looking for him. He wasn’t there, so they shot his mom. She was sitting in her La-Z-Boy watching TV in front of her two-year-old son. My friends gave me a gun and said I had to get revenge. I tracked these guys down after school and shot two of them. But I got the wrong guys.

Social scientists now tally up ten early traumas known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Many of the men in blue are near a score of ten by the time they head to kindergarten, a vast fate that kicks the stress system into high gear, dampening prospects and shortening lives.

As the day progressed, I had the gnawing sense that awe—a focus of my talk that day—was irrelevant to the men in blue. It might even be an offense, the product of the myopia and tone-deafness of my white privilege. Of what matter is awe to people with life sentences, living twenty hours a day in a nine-by-twelve-foot cell?

Fifteen minutes into my talk, standing on a dais amid microphones and the amps of the church band, I asked:

What gives you guys awe?

And then I waited. After a second or two, here is what I heard: My daughter

Visitors from the outside Singing in the church band The air


My cellie

The light outside on the yard Reading the Koran

Learning how to read RJ at SQ


The Wonders of Others

It is a myth that awe is rarefied, reserved for when we have enough wealth to enjoy lives of taste and “culture.” The responses of the men in blue tell us this is so. So too does recent empirical work. One study found that people who have less wealth report feeling more frequent awe during the day, and more wonder about their everyday surroundings. It is tempting to think that greater wealth enables us to find more awe, in the fancy home, for example, or exclusive resort, or high-end consumer goods. In fact, the opposite appears to be true, that wealth undermines everyday awe and our capacity to see the moral beauty in others, the wonders of nature, or the sublime in music or art. Our experience of awe does not depend on wealth; everyday awe is a basic human need.

In our daily diary studies in different countries, it was other people who were most likely to bring our participants everyday awe—actions of strangers, roommates, teachers, colleagues at work, people in the news, characters on podcasts, and our neighbors and family members. On rare occasions, disturbing acts did so, as in this story from a Spaniard:

It was in a metro station in Paris, France. It was about ten thirty

p.m. We were alone at the station waiting for the train to arrive when a man arrived, swearing and screaming. He was saying something about God. I think he was sick, he took out a knife and he was punching everything he bumped into, and notching

everything. We started running to get out of the metro, I don’t think I will get to the metro alone again.

And from Singapore, a story about being dumbfounded by the rise of authoritarian leaders:

When the results of the Philippines presidential elections were announced two days ago, I felt a sense of awe. The winner was this guy Duterte, who was linked to killer squads, asked to be the first to rape an Australian lady missionary who was indeed raped and killed in a prison riot, and threatened war with China! Such a man could win a presidential election??? What a man!!! Now this means that someone like Trump could be president of the United States!!! That would be awesome too because they both speak the same language. Tough talk that appeals to the most basest of human emotions. And they win!!!

We can be astonished by the depravity of fellow humans, both strangers we encounter and leaders in the public sphere, but these were rare sources of awe around the world.

Instead, over 95 percent of the moral beauty that stirred awe worldwide was in actions people took on behalf of others. Acts of courage are one kind of moral beauty with sublime potential. People using CPR to revive victims of heart attacks, parents raising children with serious health conditions, bystanders interrupting crimes or defusing fights, and organizations like Doctors Without Borders all inspire awe. Here is a story of lifesaving, courageous awe from Chile:

I remember it was a nice day and we decided to go fishing with my older brother and his friend of the same age, back then I was seventeen years old and my brother was almost twenty. We got plastic string that our neighbor let us borrow but with high regard so

we take care of it. We went to San Pedro de la Paz, I do not remember if it was the big or small lagoon, the line got stuck meters into the lagoon. Our friend jumped into the water to free the nylon and started sinking so started yelling for help, my brother despite not being a good swimmer he jumped in to save him. The moment my friend felt my brother’s body, he clung to him by his waist so both of them started drowning by disappearing from the surface. I was freaking out yelling my brother’s name, Mariooo, Mariooo, Mariooo, but my voice will choke because I felt like crying. Out of nowhere, a man in a bathing suit came running, jumped into the water and saved both of them. It was a miracle that the person was there, he was a God-sent angel that saved my brother and my friend. We all finally returned home.

God so often appears in extraordinary stories of awe; we invoke the Divine to explain the sublime.

Others’ kindness was evocative of awe around the world: having car repairs paid for by a restaurant owner; being given money by friends when broke; seeing citizens assist strangers in the streets; reading about moral exemplars, most frequently the Dalai Lama. This story from the United States combines courage with compassion:

1973 at my cousin’s restaurant. My father worked there as a bartender. I was there and my best friend from high school walked in. He is Black and I am white and I had not seen him in five years. I stood and embraced him and we began to talk. A guy at the bar said to my father, “How can you allow your son to have a N as his friend?” My father looked at this guy and loudly told him to get out of his bar and never come back. I have never been more proud of my father, who was fifty-nine years old at that time.

Overcoming obstacles was a universal as well: People thriving despite profound racism and poverty. Jews who had survived the concentration camps. People who transcend mental and physical challenges, as in this story from South Africa:

When watching my daughter, who was born with bilateral club foot, dance in a ballet recital for the first time I was filled with awe. I was in the audience with my mother and my little girl was dancing onstage. I had been backstage with her before and had been getting her ready for the performance. While watching I felt the beginning of tears in my eyes and my heart felt like it was going to burst with pride. I had flashbacks of the time when she was born with her feet upside down and I felt awestruck by how far she has come since that day years ago.

We often turn to literature, to poetry, to film, to art, and, on occasion, to the news for inspiring stories of overcoming, allowing goodness its own speech. Here is such an example from Norway:

When I read an article in the paper about an eight-year-old girl in Yemen who had run away from a forced marriage and taken up the fight against her parents in the judicial system. It hit me how much courage and fighting spirit that can live in a person, and that you can fight for your cause and actually make a change. I was an adult when I read this article. I was alone, but had to tell several people about it later. I didn’t do anything special with my own life afterwards, but had an aha-experience.

Finally, others’ rare talents brought people awe around the world. For a young man from Mexico, it was the trapeze artist and contortionist in the Cirque du Soleil. For a woman in Sweden, her husband’s strength in moving large household objects around the home. For an Australian,

watching swimmer Sun Yang’s last 100 meters in a 1,500-meter world-record swim. For another Australian, watching surfers ride 50-foot waves. For a student in Japan, listening to a talk by a Fields Medal–winning mathematician. Here is a story about rare talents from Indonesia:

There was an autistic boy named Andre. Andre’s parents are poor, such that he doesn’t go to school at all. Andre tends to leave home without saying goodbye, and once he left home only to be found two years later. Andre has a rare talent, he can know precisely on what day does a certain date fall whenever that is. Me along with five other friends who visited him, he could tell precisely our birth dates. He could also do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division without any calculating tool whatsoever.

Parents’ stories about their children were also common—listening to a fetus’s heartbeat, hearing a one-year-old’s first word, seeing a two-year-old gallop, being in the audience at a grammar school dance performance. Children are small, but their development is vast, and a source of awe for parents on their better days.

Everyday moral beauty can transform lives. Steven Czifra grew up in a home that was so violent that one night one parent threw boiling water on the other; he doesn’t remember who it was. He dropped out of school at ten, got into drugs, shaved his head, and ran with a Mexican gang. One day he broke into a parked Mercedes to steal its stereo the very moment the owner, who happened to be an LAPD officer, arrived. His first night in jail, he told me, he was chained to a chair for eight hours alone in a cold room—some of the longest hours of his life.

It was everyday moral beauty that transformed him. In solitary confinement in prison, he encountered a knowing librarian who fed Steven’s hunger for reading; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and its archiving of courage—“I love the name of honor more than I fear death”—was an epiphany for him. Upon his release from prison, at a halfway house, Steven

tells me, a biker got him off drugs and a job clearing brush for seventy dollars a day. More moral beauty. Later, at a community college, a Shakespeare teacher named Larry taught Steven to read Milton like a literary critic, and that the self-loathing in his mind was just that, thoughts, fleeting notions from parents who could have done better. Steven, now in graduate school, would cofound the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI) at UC Berkeley. This is a network of formerly incarcerated students guiding people in prison and just out to make their way to college. USI allows these unlikely college students to find opportunities to allow their goodness its own speech.

Within the study of morality it has long been the view that we find our moral compass in the teaching of abstract principles, the study of great texts, or the leadership of charismatic gurus and great sages. In fact, we are just as likely to find our “moral law within” in the awe we feel for the wonders of others nearby.


About 4,000 of the 700,000 unhoused people in the United States live on the streets of Oakland, California. Dr. Leif Hass devotes much of his day to caring for their health problems—mental illness, diabetes, hypertension, festering wounds, poor nutrition, drug addictions, and the deterioration of the brain that the cold nights and hard pavement of homelessness bring.

Many health professionals get burned out from this work. Leif Hass stays resilient and close to the Hippocratic oath—to reduce harm—through the moral beauty of the people he cares for. Here is a story of awe he sent me called “A Ray of Light,” about a patient who was born with cerebral palsy and lost the use of his hands due to a surgery. The following exchange moved Hass to awe.

Hey! How you been, Ray?”

He replied: “I just wake up every day and think about what I can do to make people happy.”

The goose bumps rise on my arms . . .

“Wow, Ray, you are an amazing person, my friend. Now tell me about what brought you in to the hospital?”

Ray fills me in on the details in the slightly strained and slurred speech that sometimes comes with cerebral palsy. My mind goes to work trying to diagnose this mysterious case of happiness.

We chat for another ten minutes about God and love and looking out for one another.

Finally, I say, “Sorry Ray, I gotta go . . .”

Leaving the room, I feel enlivened, yet also strangely humbled.

Encounters with moral beauty can take us aback, as in Leif’s story of awe—they have the power of an epiphany or unforgettable scene in a novel or movie. Philosophical analyses of spiritual epiphany, and novelists’ portrayals of personal epiphany, find that the experience is imbued with a sense of light, clarity, truth, and the sharpened recognition of what really matters. Leif’s story is titled accordingly—“A Ray of Light”—and follows the patterned unfolding of awe. Ray’s overcoming cerebral palsy strikes Leif as vast and mysterious. Ray’s generosity shifts Leif from his default self’s doctor-patient checklist to appreciating Ray’s kindness. Leif wonders why Ray is so happy. His body registers Ray’s goodness in goose bumps, a bodily reminder of being part of something larger than the self. He feels “enlivened” and humbled.

Empirical studies have charted the power of witnessing others’ courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming. In a study typical of this literature, people first view a brief video of an inspiring act—of Mother Teresa, for example, or Desmond Tutu—or a moving teacher. Or participants are asked to simply recall a personal encounter with everyday moral beauty. These encounters lead people to feel more inspired and optimistic. They feel more integrated in their community—that expanding circle of care. Their faith in

their fellow humans and hope for the human prospect rises. They hear a voice akin to a calling to become a better person, and they often imitate others’ acts of courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming. Or they share stories of moral beauty with others, like the Norwegian who read the news story about the courageous Yemeni girl. Witnessing acts of moral beauty prompts us more generally to be ready to share and lend a helping hand.

In a compelling study in this vein, participants watched one of three videos. The first was a short clip from the television show 60 Minutes about Amy Biehl, a white American college student who was murdered by Black youths in South Africa. In their grief, her parents created the Amy Biehl Foundation (now called the Amy Foundation), funding youth programs that help underprivileged Black South Africans to better their lives. Or participants watched a feature about Joel Sonnenberg, who, at twenty-two months old, was badly burned when Reginald Dort slammed his truck into Sonnenberg’s family car while trying to crash into a woman he knew. Joel needed forty-five surgeries to survive. At Dort’s sentencing, which occurred years after the incident, Joel was the last to speak:

This is my prayer for you—that you may know that grace has no limits. We will not consume our lives with hatred because hatred brings only misery. We will surround our lives with love.

After watching one of these videos or a control video, the participants— white college students in the United States—could give money to the United Negro College Fund. The twist was that some of these white students had reported high levels of “social dominance orientation,” or SDO, an attitude that predicts increased prejudice toward Black people. Hearing the stories of Amy Biehl and Joel Sonnenberg, though, led participants to give more money to the United Negro College Fund, including white participants with strong SDO attitudes. The awe felt in encountering humanity’s better angels can counter toxic tribal tendencies.

Witnessing others’ acts of courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming activates different regions of the brain than those activated by physical beauty, namely cortical regions where our emotions translate to ethical action. These encounters lead to the release of oxytocin and activation of the vagus nerve. We often sense tears and goose bumps, our body’s signals that we are part of a community appreciating what unites us. When moved by the wonders of others, the soul in our bodies is awakened, and acts of reverence often quickly follow.


As a child in Xalapa, Mexico—the “City of Flowers”—Yuyi Morales passed the days wondering about extraterrestrials, sometimes hoping they would take her away. Years later, when her son was two months old, her partner learned that his grandfather in San Francisco was very ill. They worried that Grandpa Ernie wouldn’t get to meet his only grandchild, so they left in a rush, saying goodbye only to Yuyi’s mother.

Once in San Francisco, Yuyi was prevented by immigration law from returning to Mexico. Lonely and isolated, speaking only a few words of English, she struggled. Caring for the new baby exhausted her. She knew no one. Every day, she cried.

So she took to walking.

She wandered the streets of San Francisco with her son in a stroller. One day, she discovered a public library and ventured in. There, in the quiet of a public space, a librarian transformed Yuyi’s life. She introduced Yuyi to books. Awestruck, Yuyi would learn to read English. She began sketching scenes from her imagination, which would become her own children’s books, including two about people of moral beauty to her—Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez—that have won international awards, most notably the Caldecott Medal. Yuyi’s most recent book, Dreamers, has an unusual hero

—a librarian, archiving the wonders of moral beauty, and allowing goodness its own speech for the people checking out books.

When I spoke with Yuyi, she shared a letter of gratitude she sent to the librarian who inspired the story, whose name is Nancy:

Hola Nancy,

Do you remember me? I could never forget you. True, at first I might have been scared of you, guardian at your desk, and too close to the basket of baby books that my son always walked towards

when we entered this unbelievable place. The children’s book section of the Western Addition public library.

At first I might have been afraid of you. What if I made a

mistake? Or broke the library rules? Would you tell us to leave the library because we didn’t belong? Instead one day, you talk to me, in English I didn’t quite understand, and before we knew it, you

were giving Kelly a library card. I was puzzled. Kelly was barely two years old. How could he have anything?

Today, Kelly is a 24-year-old lover of books. He also writes.

And he often helps me review and correct my still imperfect English when I write the children’s books I create. Books like the ones you put in my hands. Nancy, ever since the library became my home, and books became my path for growth, you have been an amazing guardian. Thank you.

Yuyi’s letter of gratitude is one of many acts of reverence in which we appreciate moral beauty, and, more generally, mark the wonders of life as sacred. Subtle is everyday reverence—how we shift our speech with compliments, solicitous questions, and indirectness to show respect for others. Like many mammals, we momentarily shrink the size of our bodies in a subtle head bow or slouch of the shoulders to convey reverential deference. With a simple warm clasp of another person’s arm, we can

express gratitude and appreciation, activating oxytocin release and the vagus nerve in the recipient of our touch.

We ritualize these ancient and simple acts of reverence into cultural practices. We create symbolic gestures, like the Anjali Mudra greeting gesture in India of palms pressed together and the bowing of head and body, to express respect and shared humanity. We find sacred objects to touch as physical reminders of the wonders that have given us awe—a deceased father’s tie, a rock from a backpacking trip, the menu from an engagement dinner, T-shirts from a favorite show. In many hunter-gatherer cultures, people carried around bones and skulls of deceased family members to appreciate their place in their lives. I still regularly touch a wristband Rolf gave me on one of my last visits to him and feel his presence somehow. Acts of everyday reverence, expressed in bowing and touch, for example, can be seen in religious ceremony, funerary rites, and christenings.

So powerful is our tendency to revere, to mark as sacred what brings us awe, that when we witness others expressing gratitude—the simplest act of reverence—we ourselves are moved to kindness. In one study on this, participants were tasked with editing a movie review that was authored by a writer. Before doing their own editing work, participants first looked at a past editor’s efforts. In one condition, participants viewed the writer expressing appreciation to that editor with a “thank you.” Witnessing this simple act of reverence led participants to be more willing to assist the writer they were responsible for editing. Others’ acts of reverence stir us to likeminded actions. We find ourselves joined with others in interconnected webs of reverence.

Moral Beauty Inside and Out

If we are lucky, when we are children our lives are surrounded by everyday moral beauty.

This was not the childhood Louis Scott was born into. When he was six years old, he saw his father murder a man. His mother was a sex worker, and her business filled the days of his childhood, he says, more so than Little League baseball or playing with Tonka trucks. It was only a matter of time before Louis was pimping—and doing very well at it—which led to a host of pimping and pandering convictions and a prison sentence of 229 years. Here is a story of awe he shared with me:

I was standing before the judge being sentenced to 229 years to life. I can remember being so angry, frustrated, feeling so hurt and ashamed. I felt as though I was being made a public spectacle. Everyone in the courtroom was white. I didn’t know if someone was going to step out of the crowd and attempt to shoot me. I can remember my thoughts were everywhere at that time. It was as if I was having an out-of-body experience. I’m standing there watching myself argue with the judge during the sentencing phase of my trial, telling the judge that sentencing me to 229 years to life isn’t going to do anything. I was so angry I told the judge that I haven’t done anything that this country was not founded upon and I feel that I’m still paying for that statement to this day.

Institutions that embody moral beauty—universities, museums, cathedrals, courthouses, monuments, the criminal justice system—can inspire awe in those who live lives of privilege. For those who’ve been subjugated by such institutions, the feeling is often much closer to threat-based awe and its bodily expressions, shudders and cold shivers.

Once inside, Louis was transformed by an idea: a way he could bring peace to the confines of prison and stir an awareness in those on the outside about the kindness and courage of those on the inside, allowing a goodness so rarely considered its own speech within prison. Moved, he has produced award-winning shows for San Quentin Radio on the illusions and costs of gang loyalty inside, living and dying with hepatitis C, and the stigma of

AIDS in prison. For the San Quentin News, he interviewed the Golden State Warriors and people like Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, and Van Jones when they visited SQ. He is the only prisoner to have been elected to the Society of Professional Journalists.

Louis was one of four restorative justice facilitators that first day I visited San Quentin. RJ is grounded in principles of nonviolence: it centers upon perpetrators recognizing the harm they have caused, taking responsibility for their acts, making amends, and expressing remorse. It is a radical and ritualized implementation of the idea that if we allow people, even those in the heat of conflict, the chance for allowing goodness its own speech, we can build more peaceful relations, often fragile ones. It is a cultural archive of moral beauty with a long past: RJ dates back to Gandhi and MLK, in our deeper history to Indigenous practices from around the world, and further back in our evolutionary history to mammalian peacemaking tendencies. It is grounded in the conviction of moral beauty, that all people, including those who have murdered and those who’ve lost loved ones and are overheated with thoughts of revenge, can find kindness and overcome.

A central practice of restorative justice is the talking circle, in which individuals sit in a circle and take turns sharing where they are that day while others simply listen. After my talk on awe, we broke into groups of ten, and Louis led the talking circle I happened to be part of. As we took turns speaking, the men in blue spoke of the following: their remorse, a cellie in his fifties dying in the infirmary, a son landing in prison, an upcoming appearance before the parole board, the latest thinking on sentencing laws, the school-to-prison pipeline, drug legalization, police brutality, and mass incarceration. The conversation often sounded like a graduate seminar in sociology. Louis provided a narrative thread to the disclosures with the slowly measured, grammatically pure clarity of someone used to narrating trauma and uniting warring sides.

On one of my last visits to San Quentin, I sat in a pew most of the day next to a white prisoner named Chris. He had been raised in a white neighborhood in Orange County, California, and fell into that region’s street

life of skinheads. They required him to go on missions, to “put violent intentions upon other people,” namely, people of color. That led to many arrests, and a third-strike conviction for armed robbery, landing him in SQ. There he would join RJ. Here is what Chris said about what he was learning:


In order to make something grow, you gotta own a little dirt My dirt, in order to grow myself

Chris was growing his hair long, to dissociate from the white supremacist skinheads inside. And he was getting the tattoos on his neck removed one by one. That day, he spoke to the audience of two hundred men in blue. He talked about being a Nazi skinhead. About assaulting people of color with baseball bats. From the pews, I could see the reddening of shame wash over his face. Darwin reasoned that the blush is a manifestation of our moral beauty, signaling that we care about the opinions of others; studies 130 years later would find that others’ blushes trigger forgiveness and reconciliation in observers—a millisecond pattern of behavior joining perpetrator and victim in a transformative dynamic at the heart of restorative justice. At the end of Chris’s talk, the men in blue shifted in their seats in an awkward silence. Louis strode to the dais and embraced Chris. He noted how much courage it took for Chris to do what he had done.

At break that day Louis introduced me to a prisoner who had done time in solitary. He stood off at an oblique angle, avoiding direct eye contact. People who have done solitary can be overwhelmed by others’ faces, in particular, others’ eyes. This prisoner, Louis explained, had been part of a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. He had pressed small notes into the handle of the broom he used to clean parts of the prison. Those notes would make their way into the hands of other prisoners, who in turn passed them on to other prisoners. It was a vast, interconnected web of resistance.

Louis explained to the prisoner that I had written an amicus brief in the case Ashker v. Governor of California, which was inspired by the moral beauty of the hunger strike that took place at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The Ashker in the case is white supremacist Todd Ashker, who had lived twenty-eight years in solitary at the Pelican Bay maximum-security prison in Northern California. In solitary, Ashker spent twenty-three hours a day by himself in a windowless cell about the size of a parking space. He could see no other prisoners; nor could he hear them after correctional officers covered the front of his cell with plexiglass. Guards “messed with his mail” from his family. He was not allowed to hug visitors. In my brief I argued that depriving prisoners of touch, our most powerful language of reverence, harms them physically and mentally, and worsens their chances for reform. In one study of prisoners in solitary, 70 percent showed signs of impending nervous breakdown, 40 percent suffered from hallucinations, and 27 percent had suicidal ideation. Solitary confinement is the annihilation of everyday moral beauty. One inmate summed it up aptly: “I would rather have gotten the death penalty.”

In his cell, Ashker began to call out to leaders of Mexican American and Black gangs in cells nearby and listen through a vent. Their conversations turned to stories of moral beauty: talk about parents and grandparents, fathers and uncles, sisters and brothers, and children. And how hard solitary was. Ashker and his neighbors called for a truce among the rival gangs. On July 8, 2013, Ashker led that hunger strike, which involved more than 29,000 prisoners protesting that solitary confinement is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. It was the largest hunger protest in U.S. history. Now that is vast. In 2015, the case was settled in favor of the prisoners, and more than 2,000 prisoners statewide were moved out of solitary confinement.

When Louis introduced me to the SQ prisoner, we made glancing eye contact, a 250-millisecond act of recognition. I felt a rush of goose bumps at being part of something much bigger than any study I would ever do or talk I might give.

At the end of that day, the men in blue stood to recite the principles of restorative justice. After the shuffle and groaning of two hundred people rising to their feet, a silence fell over us, in that powerful, quiet moment of shared attention. And then we all recited together:

I believe that violence is not a solution to any problem.

I believe that every person is endowed with a sacred dignity.

I believe that every person is capable of changing, healing, and being restored.

I pledge to respect the dignity of every person.

I pledge to overcome violence with love and compassion.

I pledge to accompany and support anyone affected by crime on their healing journey.

I pledge to be an instrument of restoration, of reconciliation and forgiveness.

At the last word, “forgiveness,” men turned to one another to shake hands, clasp arms, chuckle softly, and make eye contact in the aftermath of allowing goodness its own speech. The room seemed illuminated. Standing at the back of the chapel, Louis and I broke a rule: we embraced. We did so at that slightly oblique angle at which men are wont to hug, one leaning a shoulder into the chest of the other.

That kind of embrace was the last act of reverence between Rolf and me. A couple of weeks before his death, he had been reclining on his couch in the living room, drifting in and out toward a deep sleep; the opiates rendered it oceanic and dreamlike. He rose to a sitting position on the couch and called me, my wife, Mollie, and our daughters, Natalie and Serafina, over to come near him. We pulled in chairs, sitting in a semicircle around him. He gave each of us gifts, telling stories, so often humorous and quirky, about the place of our moral beauty in his life. My gifts were a red, white, and blue wristband, reminiscent of the headband of the same colors that I wore every day when I was thirteen, and a French Opinel knife. I touch its

wooden handle every day. The sensations that arise through that tactile contact make me think of Rolf’s hands.

Labored, deliberate, Rolf slowly stood up. Body angled by pain, he shuffled to his kitchen. I followed, my body’s motion synced up with his since our first years of life. There we embraced. For only two or three seconds. But it felt longer. As we released, he looked to the ground and said:

We made our way.

Other than those words, I can’t really remember what we all said that last day in conversation. There was no summing up of a life or speechmaking. What I remember is feeling his chest and shoulder leaning into mine, the top of his head touching near my temple, his large hands on my shoulder blades, and the feelings of awe that ensued. I feel this tactile impression of Rolf today when I embrace people, like Louis. It brings to my mind Rolf’s face and eyes. I can almost hear his laugh, and how he answered the phone “Dachman!” It sends me down webs of memories of his courage, kindness, strength, and overcoming: how as a fifth grader he protected the least popular girl in my seventh-grade class from eighth-grade bullies; how he loved to barbecue for large crowds of friends; how he could throw a softball into the sky until it would disappear; or how in his everyday work as a speech therapist he taught the impoverished and most ignored children in our country, who have lived lives thrown off course by ACEs, to utter the sounds of speech. Allowing goodness its own speech.

My default self rightly observes that I will never feel that embrace again, or be inspired by new acts of his moral beauty. But my body tells me in this sense of being touched that he is still somehow nearby. That our life together is registered in some permanent, electrochemical awareness in the millions of cells in my skin that make sense of being embraced by my brother. That there is something beyond the corporal body of others’ lives

that remains in the cells of our bodies when they leave. And that there is so much moral beauty, and so much good work to do.

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