Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Where Is the Excitement in Responsible Living?

"Take my crime away, and you take my world away."

Many times I have been asked how responsible living can possibly replace the excitement that is the oxygen of the criminal's life. First, there is nothing wrong with "excitement." Most people want to do more than work, pay bills, and have their car repaired. However, from the criminal's point of view, excitement comes from doing whatever is forbidden or from conduct solely intended to build himself up as more clever, more capable, stronger than anyone else. The excitement he seeks is invariably at the expense of others.

It has been suggested that providing teenage delinquents with opportunities to experience "legitimate" excitement would be instrumental in helping them to reform. Unfortunately, this is not true. Give a delinquent youngster an opportunity to sky dive or rock climb, and you'll have a delinquent who now knows how to sky dive and rock climb. His overall mentality, his view of himself and the world has not changed one iota. He will sky dive but continue to seek excitement in his customary fashion, whatever that may be—illegal drugs, stealing, intimidation, etc.

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The criminal has three options. The first is to continue in crime and endure the consequences to him and to others, including those who care about him. A second option is to change to a way of life he has at times wanted but, essentially, rejected as dull and boring—to live responsibly. The third option is not to live at all.

If an offender decides he wants to change, there are no guarantees of success (as he might define it)—of fame or of huge monetary compensation. So where is the excitement? One felon asked me, "What do you have that compares with cocaine?" In this question, he was referring not just to the drug but mainly to the entire way of life that goes with seeking drugs, using drugs, and associating with other users. Asked that question in just those words, I replied, "Nothing." I could not truthfully state that by living responsibly, he would experience the high voltage that is inherent (from his point of view) in the criminal lifestyle.

So, where is the excitement? The criminal's perception, articulated clearly by one felon, is "Take my crime away, and you take my world away." Responsible people involve themselves in activities and experiences that they find gratifying, enriching, stimulating, and enjoyable. But this is not the same as what the criminal seeks and insists upon.  As he lives his life, his activities are in line with affirming over and over his view of himself as the hub of the wheel around which everything revolves and repeatedly establishing himself as the big shot for whom any means to achieve his objectives is acceptable.

Responsible living does not offer the high voltage excitement of the criminal's predatory existence. If an offender chooses to change and become responsible, he will progress as far as his energy, talent, and hard work will take him. He will not have to look over his shoulder for others who will hold him accountable. And there will be self-respect built on achievement but not the empty self-esteem built on pretensions and arrogance. Others will begin to trust him, and he may experience a sense of "cleanliness" that is brand new. If he persists, he will not want to jeopardize what he is accomplishing.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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