By Victor M. Parachin
In 1921 when Lewis Lawes became its warden, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, had a reputation for being the toughest prison in the country. The most notorious criminals were sent to this severe and unforgiving place. But, when Lawes retired 20 years later, the prison had become a model for the humane treatment of prisoners and the development of rehabilitation programs.
Lawes instituted theatricals, film showings, athletics, and provided radio earphones for each cell. He also required prisoners to wear identical uniforms to blur distinctions of wealth and status.
Yet Lawes said his success and the prison’s transformation was not his doing. “I owe it all to my wonderful wife, Catherine, who is buried outside the prison walls.” Catherine Lawes was a young mother with three small children when her husband became warden at Sing Sing. Although many people warned her never to set foot inside the prison, she disregarded their advice.
When the first prison basketball game was played, she brought her three small children and sat in the stands with the prisoners. Upon learning a convicted murderer was blind, she taught him Braille. When she found a hearing-impaired prisoner, she learned sign language so she could communicate with him.
Quietly and lovingly she worked with prisoners from 1921 until 1937, when she died in a car accident. The next morning, Lewis Lawes didn’t come to work, so the acting warden took his place. The entire prison population instantly knew something was wrong.
The next day Catherine Lawes’s body lay in state at her home, three-quarters of a mile from the prison. The acting warden toured the prison that morning and was shocked to see a large crowd of the toughest, most hardened prisoners gathered at the main gate. Even more astonishing were the tears of grief flowing down the cheeks of many men.
Spontaneously, the acting warden issued an unheard of order. He gave the men permission to leave the prison and walk to the Lawes’s home where they could pay their final respects. All day long, a parade of convicted felons walked three-quarters of a mile to stand in line and say goodbye to Catherine Lawes. Every single prisoner—though unaccompanied by guards—returned to the prison. No one took advantage of the opportunity to escape.
Catherine Lawes’s gentle spirit transformed many hardened souls in that prison. Her impact clearly demonstrates that gentleness is powerful, strong, vigorous, dynamic, and life changing.
What our world desperately needs is an outbreak of gentleness. The apostle Paul included this neglected virtue in his fruit of the Spirit list: “But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23, The Living Bible). Here are some ways of infusing gentleness into society.
Begin by cultivating gentle thoughts. Gentleness starts in the mind. Our lives are tinged by the color and complexion of our thoughts. We become what we think, so be sure to entertain gentle, loving, kind, good, and compassionate thoughts about yourself and others.
Begin by examining your mind and thoughts. Do you see the world as a hostile, uninviting, unaccepting place? Are you guilty of viewing others in a negative, critical, judgmental way? If so, tame your mind and train yourself to think differently.
Consider this analogy: In order to grow larger muscles, you need to practice weight lifting in a very disciplined way. Similarly, if you wish to live in a gentle and inviting manner, you will need to practice overcoming every tendency to be pessimistic, cynical, and skeptical.
Be guided by Paul’s words: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
Be gentle in spirit. Interestingly, the linguistic origins of the word gentle refer to a wild animal that has been tamed. For example, a formerly wild horse that has been tamed and harnessed is described as “gentled” or a “gentling.” Any animal that has been “gentled” becomes useful: A horse can pull a wagon; an ox can plow; an elephant can carry cargo. Thus, to be gentle is to use our strength in a helpful and focused way.
Here is an example from professional ice hockey, a rough sport played by tough athletes. When the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, it was a first for the team. As the traditional reward for winning, each Dallas player was entitled to take the Stanley Cup home for a 24-hour period.
Most players bring the cup to their hometown and proudly display it for family and friends. Joe Nieuwendyk, one of the Stars’s key players, pleaded to have the cup an extra day so he could take it to two sites. The first day he took it to Whitby, Ontario, where he grew up. There he put the Stanley Cup in the local hockey arena where many of the town’s youth teams came to view it.
The following morning he moved the Stanley Cup to his alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Specifically, Nieuwendyk wanted to bring the Stanley Cup to his favorite professor, Dan Sisler, who is blind.
“I had a lot of respect for him,” said Nieuwendyk, who held a special reception at Cornell primarily for Sisler’s benefit. “Everyone stopped what they were doing to see him going over the cup. It was awesome. It was a neat feeling to see him scan the cup with his hands,” Nieuwendyke recalls.
The strapping hockey player demonstrated gentleness through his concern for the weaker, less skilled people in his life who had helped him achieve what he had.
Be gentle with those who have hurt you. As we go through life, various people will bring us hurt through their words and acts or through neglect. Rather than harboring angry or hateful thoughts, respond to their wounding in a gentle way by extending forgiveness.
Live by this wisdom from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude.”
Victor M. Parachin is an author and freelance journalist writing from Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is the eighth in his series of nine articles appearing throughout 2008.