Prison, Honeybees, and a Sense of Significance

I went to prison last Tuesday...to give a presentation on wild bees, of course. What else would someone go to prison for?....oh, right. A group of women at Lee Arrendal state prison, who for the last three years have been learning the art and science of beekeeping, sat tall on their seats, notepads in hand, eagerly awaiting what I had to say about wild bees in the southeast. I've honestly never had a better audience; enthusiastic, engaged, asking questions and wanting to know more. At the end of my talk, they were anxious to start a new project raising mason bees. I left feeling honestly excited to go back in the spring to help them with their new bees. Did I just say I'm excited to go back to prison? Yep. While I was giving the talk I hadn't really been thinking much about the fact that they were convicted criminals. Certainly I realized I was in a prison, but I was focused mainly on the thing I'm always focused on, transmitting information and hopefully getting people excited about wild bees. On the drive home I suddenly started wondering how each of them had landed there. What turns had they taken in life, what choices had they made, what were their stories? What drives someone to make decisions which land them in prison? They seemed like bright people who had a lot to offer the world. There seemed to be a lot of potential in that room, potential which was locked up behind bars. Then again I tend to see potential in everyone, I guess I'm a regular Pollyanna, if Pollyanna were a middle-aged mad entomologist. I tend to think that what drives most human behavior, good or bad, is the need for significance. In the end, most everything we do is driven on some level by a need to feel like we matter, like there is a purpose for our existence. When people find themselves in a place where they feel powerless and insignificant, they tend to turn that inward, toward depression and apathy, or outward, toward anger and lashing out at the world and people around them. Either way, the unfortunate outcome is that the world loses the potential within that person, and that persons loses themselves. What is the road back from that? I started realizing that successful 'rehabilitation' - from an internal prison of depression, apathy and anger or an external prison of bars and chicken wire - is about finding significance, purpose, meaning. Often easier said than done, but in this case, it was happening. Women were finding a purpose - taking care of bees, harvesting honey, learning. These little insects were helping them find a purpose, and reawakening the potential of each of these women, even behind bars. I also realized the reason I enjoyed it so much, because it also gave me a sense of significance. The knowledge I had to offer suddenly seemed more needed, more appreciated, than ever before. And so yes, I look forward to going back to prison.


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