Would you like to peek inside with me? Inside the mind of a criminal? You needn’t be afraid. You may well find such a mind to be not so different than your own.

Nearly a quarter of a century of teaching jail inmates twice a week can alter the chemistry of one’s brain (as it surely did mine). Actually, there are lots of things that can alter one’s brain — from sex, drugs and rock and roll to your grandmother’s hug, the fragrance of a wildflower and any stimulus that triggers the memory of an adverse childhood experience.

Science tells us that our brain chemistry constantly changes at every nanosecond, at our every thought and action. Yep, for every one of us.

One of the great discoveries of modern medicine and psychology is the unfathomable effect of the “unconscious” mind on our conscious thoughts and actions. Indeed, much evidence seems to point to our unconscious mind as the unseen entity that rules us all (no matter how much we may swear to high heaven, plead, barter or believe that it doesn’t).

The more physicists have experimented within the quantum world (the reality of things that happen at the subatomic level all around us all the time), the more it appears that yet another great paradox of nature exists; we have a free will but still all our actions are predestined. Both appear to be true, both at the same time; total free will and total predestination (as Forrest Gump once stated so succinctly near the end of his movie.)

Whether we, in reality, truly have free will or not is apparently beyond our current ability to discern. Regardless, we must always “act” as if we have choices in all we do.

To peer deeply into the mind of a criminal is to peer deeply into our own, no matter how “free” from deviant thoughts and bad behavior we may think ourselves to be. Such an understanding certainly leads any thinking person to the stance that we all need grace. All of us. Without exception. No matter how demonic or angelic we may ascertain to be the nature of our daily deeds.

If I learned one thing in all those years of teaching incarcerated brothers of mine, it would be that we are surprisingly much the same. We all err. We all have our bad thoughts and actions. The thing I found that superficially separates us is the “degree” and “frequency” of our bad thoughts and actions. And it is often a very thin grey line of separation indeed.

I taught many a man deemed to be a “sociopath.” Such a person does not (supposedly) respond to grace and forgiveness in the same way as might most folks who read these words. Such deranged brains always “prey” on such kindness, exploit it and twist it to their own selfish advantage; or so we are often told.

However, I have also found that grace (defined here as “altruistic kindness and unconditional love”) does appear to have a markedly positive effect on even the most criminal brain. No, not always as quickly as we might like. No, not always in the way we might expect. But grace alters brain chemistry as strongly as if it were a powerful drug. Indeed, grace may well be the best medicine we have. For us all.

If a child does not regularly receive grace, then grace can be extremely difficult to recognize, accept and generate toward others later on in life for that individual. This is why it’s so critical for children to be given grace (unconditional kindness and love) at a young age.

We are who we are, a complex myriad of experiences, joys, hopes, horrors, chemicals, genetics and grey matter. Which is precisely why we all not only “need” grace, but we all “deserve” it, too (regardless of what we might have heard much to the contrary).

Yes, we all need — and we all deserve — grace. All of us. For not a single one of us can help being born who we are.

Grace can heal. It can heal the brains of children who suffer adverse childhood experiences. It can heal (at least to a degree) the most adversely affected criminal brains of adults. And if we learn to give it willingly and without condition, grace can heal even you and me.

Sign up for HeraldCourier.com Email Alerts

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

Recommended for you

Welcome to the Conversation

No name-calling, personal insults or threats. No attacks based on race, gender, ethnicity, etc. No writing with your caps lock on – it's screaming. Keep on topic and under 1,500 characters. No profanity or vulgarity. Stay G- or PG-rated.
Load comments