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I never thought that an article on the rising global population of urban rats could move me, but it did.

One day my friend left a copy of the National Geographic on my bunk. I don’t care much for magazines, but since I didn’t have much to do, I picked it up. I idly flipped through the pages until I came upon the last article in the issue: “In the City’s Shadow” by Emma Marris. There was just something mystical about the title that caught my attention.

But the article was about…rats! I have always been disgusted by these creatures, and apparently I’m not alone, as Marris noted that many cultures around the world considered the rodents to be vile. 

But toward the end of the article, the author mentioned something that blew my mind and prompted me to reflect on my own life. She wrote, “Despite their bad rap, rats have redeeming qualities; they’re smart, and maybe empathetic too.” 

She cited a study in which rats freed fellow rats from cages, even though it gained them nothing and even when they could have gorged on chocolate instead. The article said, “Once the helper rat frees his companion he follows the liberated rat, jumps on him and licks him, apparently to console the distressed animal.”

When I read that, I paused in disbelief about what I had just read. I slowly re-read the paragraph again and then set the magazine down. As I pondered that rats can be empathetic by choosing to do the right thing, instead of choosing self-indulgence and instant gratification, my throat knotted. Remorse and the truth set in for me. 

What is the truth? The truth is, I am responsibe for participating in the murder of Ivan Delgado. I was a coward who ran away as he lay on the ground, struggling to take his last breath, dying from a gunshot wound to his head. Mine was a cruel and evil action.

The truth is at one point in my life, I was lower than a rat. Unlike a rat, I lacked compassion and empathy. I chose not to care about anyone, not even myself. Unlike a rat, if it did not gain me anything, I was not the least bit interested. Unlike the rat, I lived on instant gratification, even if that instant gratification meant taking a precious human life, just as long as it garnered me what I felt I needed.

I sat on my bunk asking myself how the hated, disgusting rat could show more compassion and empathy than me. How could I have behaved and consciously acted worse than a rat? 

For most of my life, I would not have had the answer to this question. Today, however, I hold the key that has unlocked the answer, an answer that has come through much self-work and deep introspection, and the mental and emotional pain that comes with that. 

There were many bad situations, circumstances, and events in my childhood, which were beyond my control. This contributed to making me into the antisocial, murderous individual that I was, and fueled my perception that life was cruel and unfair. 

But today, I make no excuses for my choices, nor do I attempt to rationalize, minimize or blame anyone or anything. Today, I accept full responsibility. Today, I understand that it was the way I chose to perceive and personalize the events of my life, and the beliefs I adopted because of those events, that left me with a void, a feeling of emptiness. I vainly tried to fill this void through a desperate search for love, respect and a sense of being valued. My unhealthy need for acceptance progressed to the point that I believed it was okay to take Ivan Delgado’s life.

The truth is, nothing I say or do can change what I did. Nothing can bring Ivan back or wipe away the endless pain I have caused.

However, through the shame, guilt and remorse I have experienced, I have learned to have empathy and compassion towards others. I have learned to create harmony with my feelings, my perceptions, and my mental state. This has given me peace within myself, and it has made it possible to be at peace with others. 

I am far from perfect, but every day I challenge myself to make sure that I will never again be what I once was. And after what I learned in that article, I will never look at rats quite the same again. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Roberto U. Lugo is a writer incarcerated in California.