It took a Chex-mix combo of a few dozen inmates in a maximum-security prison and a priest with a slew of titles trailing his name for me to finally comprehend the secret to self-confidence.
I admit: I have suffered from a mild case of Nobodyness for quite some time. Number five in a family of eight children, I was a shy, self-effacing peacemaker.
At the age of 24, I gave birth to my first child. I couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling than being with her, so I resigned from my position in bank management, sold my car to offset the loss of income, and took walks all over town with my inquisitive daughter peering out at the world from inside her carriage.
In time my family grew to include six children and I lived in a constant state of wonder. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom because I loved what I was doing. As they grew, I told myself that my resume was in some respects a compilation of the achievements of my incredible kids.
And yet my self-confidence suffered.
I dreaded dinner parties to which my attorney husband dragged me. At these events, no title, no business card, and no proof of my abilities equaled no swagger.
This state of quavering self-confidence continued until 2010, when I met and began writing a narrative nonfiction book about attorney Reverend David T. Link, whose lifelong work in social justice led, eventually, to a late-in-life career in prison ministry.
He has accrued a list of titles so lengthy, full disclosure would exceed the word limit of this column. (Google him and you’ll see what I mean.) Let me just say that he is perhaps best known as Dean Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame Law School.
When he was in his mid-60s, Reverend Link’s late wife, Barbara, told him she thought he would enjoy giving lectures to prisoners. Taking her advice, Link discovered that he loved it because the men were so hungry to learn.
After Barbara died of cancer, Link found himself going to the prison more and more, where satisfying his “need to be needed” helped ease his crushing grief. At the age of 71, he became a priest and prison chaplain who ministered to thousands of men in eight of Indiana’s twenty prisons.
As a volunteer lecturer, Link had been given full visiting privileges, which meant that he was able to go anywhere he wished within the 24-acre prison complex. Curious and gregarious, he “walked the ranges”, going up and down vast cell houses where hundreds of men are contained in side-by-side cages. He stopped at each cell to talk for a bit, always introducing himself as Dave. The prisoners had no clue of his identity on the outside.
Clearly, in order to get the full story, it was necessary for me to go to prison.
Prisoner Eric Stahl told me that his job in the chapel allowed him to observe Link from the beginning of his volunteering. He was astonished to learn at a prison college graduation ceremony during which Stahl was awarded a bachelor’s degree that Link was dean of the Notre Dame Law School.
Jason Garver said, “When he came in as a volunteer, I didn’t know he was a lawyer or anything like that. But I could tell he was a good man. So, I talked to him a little bit. Now, he’s my friend.”
When I asked prisoner James Wright, Jr. if he was surprised to learn that his chaplain is also an attorney-at-law. Wright replied, “That floors me. I didn’t know that until now.
After he recovered, Wright added, “Reverend Link is a very humble man. I found out he’s done a lot on the outside but, in here, I learned a lot just by observing him and his character. With him, it’s the here and the now.”
For three years, I observed Reverend Link interact with men and women from all walks of life. He never threw his titles around nor relied upon his business card to do the talking for him. He brought nothing but the weight of his full attention to bear upon each and every interaction.
The prisoners helped me see that authenticity trumps accomplishment, and that if a man who has a zillion titles doesn’t need them to feel self-confident, certainly I, with my earnest good-heartedness, didn’t need them either.
Going behind the razor wire showed me that what you have done in the past matters less than who you are at the present moment.
The self-confidence imparted by a good reputation is earned, and re-earned, in the here and now.