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my box of shivs

my box of shivs - Steadmoor Correctional Facility*
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There are a great many things I don't like about myself, but perhaps the worst of them is the fact that I have a short temper and am fairly adept at using words as weapons. It's caused a lot of problems for me over the years and to some sma
ll extent I have learned to control it. I know when I'm becoming angry and I try to be much more careful about what I say when I do. If I'm writing something, I wait a while to send it, reread it several times, and try my best to err on the side of diplomacy. Unfortunately the luxury of taking time to think before I act is not one I always have or take advantage of, and it doesn't always solve the problem either.

It's not that I'm afraid of conflict with others. There is a part of me that really likes it, actually. The rush of anger and self-righteous indignation is exhilarating. The more intoxicated by it I become, the more sure I am of how very right everything I say is, and the less worried I am about collateral damage caused by my actions. Sometimes I don't even know why I am upset, and there are a great many times where it has turned out to be something completely irrational and unreasonable. Doesn't matter in the moment; I'll sit there and stew about it anyway, concocting all sorts of retorts to whatever the perceived slights are.

That's when I try to shut the gates, so to speak, and be extremely careful to monitor what I do. The problem is that even though I would say I have improved a lot over the years, I'm still not what I would consider good at it. While the ability to stab away at things verbally may mean I can make a witty remark or insightful observation when things are going well, it can cause terrible damage when not properly regulated. After the rush of an argument is over, I'm left in the middle of the charred ruins of whatever the relationship was, trying to figure out what happened. More often than not, I was the one who was wrong. Maybe I even started out right but didn't need to take it so far. That is what I would say I am most afraid of, because it's the worst feeling in the world: realizing that in this particular story, you are the monster. Our culture seems to glorify doing and saying what you want with no apologies but I can attest, the cost of that is severe. If you're lucky, whomever you're dealing with cares about you enough to forgive you, to help you sort things out and move on. If not, you get to carry the ache of knowing you could have handled the situation differently and things might have worked out, but you didn't. If you delude yourself into thinking you're always right, the cost is even worse: you repeat the process over and over, alienating yourself from everyone, winding up despised and alone.

A prison is a place where people are sent when they screw up so much that society can no longer allow them to continue wreaking havoc on those around them, and so it contains them where they can hurt as few people as possible. It's not an option that most inmates choose voluntarily. In many ways, whether literally or metaphorically, the places I visit serve a similar function but I am the one who has chosen the sentence. I am a solitary person not because I am so terribly awkward around others that I can't manage relationships, or because I think I'm better than everyone else. On the contrary, I choose to be alone because I know in my heart there is a box of shivs, and while it has never been used for physical violence, the consequences of opening it are no less severe. Even though at times it has proved useful in defending myself, more often than not it just causes needless damage. When I'm photographing a place by myself, I can't hurt anyone else. When I interact with people through the somewhat opaque medium of my finished images, I am insulated, caged: there is less room to make errors, even though I invariably manage to find ways to anyway.

I'm not the good guy here. Don't ever think that. You could say there is something penitent about my work, and as a culture we tend to admire people who attempt to make amends for their mistakes. But attempting to make amends and changing your very nature are two drastically different things. I don't know that I can really accomplish either. All I have is this: this body of work is the only way I know of to try.

'my box full of shivs' taken at Steadmoor Correctional Facility.
Photograph and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America.

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