Robert Coles


Dr. Robert Coles is one of the finest psychiatrists in America and the following quotes are from his book: "The Mind's Fate: A Psychiatrist Looks at his Profession---Thirty Years of Writings (Little, Brown, &  Co, N.Y.: 2nd Edition, 1995).


Coles takes the title of his book from Georges Bernanos: "The mind's fate is, after all, a person's fate.  We are drawn along by our private visions, but beyond them stretch almost infinitely for each of us the vast and compelling mysteries of chance and circumstance."


Robert Coles has consistently over the decades been more than a psychiatrist.  He has been a philosopher, someone critically examining not only what psychiatry is doing but questioning why they are doing it.  In his introduction to his book he once again raises this type of question when he asks whether or not we are becoming overly reliant upon one type of pill or another as a way of coping with what is often the challenges of life.  Instead of trying to think and act our way out of anxiety, we pop a pill and lose the opportunity that the work of struggle would have provided.


Coles also looks at the criminal justice system and finds it anything but just.  If you look back historically, we often see the punishment of our ancestors to be cruel and that is one of the key reasons we created in our laws a statement that cruel and unusual punishment would not be allowed.  "But, the Puritans were far more generous to their criminals than we are to ours.  In Scotland and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they put liars and crooks in stocks and punished blasphemy with the pillory and the whip; they punished their neighbors---and, indeed, themselves---severely, but they never condemned anyone to a LIFE of punishment.   Swift pain, administered in public and accompanied by outright scorn, was followed by nervous forgiveness; the next man to be condemned might be a judge, a minister, an avowedly righteous man.  The Puritans knew they were sinners, and a community like theirs can generate its own paradoxical democracy---the kind that ultimately rests on Christ's challenge to the scribes, to the Pharisees, and, indeed to all of us: 'He that I without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her'" (p. 32).


"Fifteen hundred years ago, Justinian I, the Roman emperor who codified Roman law, insisted, even though he was a barbarian from the Balkans, that 'a prison is for confinement, not for punishment'" (p. 32).  Today the criminal justice system we have created is more barbaric than any our ancestors created!  The cells may be clean, the food may be warm and even palatable, but, is it not cruel to lock up forever those who are, for the most part, products of our own pathetically inadequate criminal justice system?  (For more on this topic read Karl Meninger's THE CRIME OF PUNISHMENT.)


Over 30 years ago, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Myrl E. Alexander, said that: "Simply removing an offender to an institution as punishment often only compounds the problem of reintegrating him into the community as a law-abiding citizen.  All too frequently it costs him his job, severs his family ties and pins on him a label that makes all of his problems more difficult to overcome.  So, as a means of punishment and as an instrument with which to change criminal behavior, imprisonment is still a failure" (p. 34).  In the years that have passed since those remarks, the greatest change that has occurred is that we have chosen to ignore the insanity of our criminal justice system and have elected to lock up far more of our citizens than Alexander ever thought we would.


Now the above does not mean that we should let criminals go free or have them only serve short and pleasant retreats away from the rest of us.  What is does mean is that we need to create confinement as a time during which we assist the guilty in changing the way they think and behave so that they are less likely to do damage to others when they are released. 


Ultimately we want them to behave in a civil manner.   "Civility means all of us subordinating our feelings to certain shared imperatives…" (p. 107).  When we subordinate we are giving up the right to act out.  This giving up, this loss, must be freely chosen, not imposed.   "In losing we gain, in giving up we receive; the old Biblical paradoxes are built into what is called a republic, a civilization.  Civility means losing a chance to have one's emotional, wordy say, giving up impulse.  For what?  For the sake of procedure, order, restraint; for the sake of a thankful absence of the other person's torrent of emotional impulses, visited on oneself and those near at hand…The gift for the act of renunciation (civility) is, of course, civilization" (p. 108).


However, if we expect a person to be civil, they must be able to exercise delayed gratification.  To exercise delayed gratification, they must see that gratification is likely down the road.  For many---if not all---who have ended up in prison, they cannot wait.  They cannot delay.  They cannot be civil.  Therefore, we must do everything we can as a society to help instill in our citizenry the ability to be civil, the desire to delay, which means that we must ensure they have meaningful work and caring teachers.  Although we should be working toward these goals from the moment they enter the educational system, it is not too late to set such goals for every prisoner that we have incarcerated.


What life is all about is captured by the phrase Coles uses: "…live enthusiastically and suffer honorably…"


Crime would decline drastically if we were able to create more opportunities for people to live enthusiastically.   Our jobs, our schooling, should be encouraging us to live enthusiastically---but they rarely do!  When we live enthusiastically, then we are far more able to suffer honorably.