Letter to a Prisoner
Recently I visited a man in prison. The length of his sentence meant that in all probability by the time he was eligible for parole his children would have grown up and his parents unlikely to still be alive.
This is only part of the stark reality of a long prison sentence. The other fact is that your freedom is taken away. Every aspect of life in prison is controlled. The prisoner has no choice when to get up or go to bed, when to go outside for sunlight and fresh air. Every where the prisoner goes, involves walking through a locked door that he must wait for someone else to open. Simple everyday things we all take for granted are not available to the inmate.
There is a possibility that this man was wrongly convicted. I am not a legal expert and I was not there to advise him on how to proceed with his appeal.
Here is the letter I wrote to him:
I was glad to meet you last week. I hope that our encounter was in some way helpful for you. I am writing this letter to you now as a reminder of some of what we talked about.
It’s important to repeat that whatever the merits of your case might be, the fact is you have been given a long prison sentence. And whatever might happen regarding your appeals, the question remains as to how you live on the inside. By this I mean both inside the prison itself with all its structures and rules, and inside ‘you’.
You told me that your aim is to still be smiling when you are finally released. I admire this. At the same time you asked me how you could live without becoming increasingly angry with thoughts of seeking revenge. I believe the answer to this lies in how you choose to live in the present; how you *are* in each moment. My experience is that to only concentrate on the future is an impossible task that makes one hard and often increasingly bitter. The truth is we can only *be* in this present moment. After all, you never did anything in the future! And the past is something that exists in our memories… which we are continually updating in a present moment.
So, what to do? I would say that your suffering needs to be respected. You cannot ignore the hurt because it is real. But, rather than let the hurt harden you, let it soften you. The hurt can open you rather than close you. As you have already discovered, one outcome of your incarceration has been an awareness of your love for your parents and realization of how much they love you. So let the hurt continue to send you looking for those who accept you.
Can you hold in the same moment the inconsistency of continuing to seek to clear your name while at the same time seek acceptance of the reality of your situation as it exists at this time? It seems to me therein lies your freedom.
Some feelings, like anger and resentment, are not comfortable; but they are natural feelings that arise in response to the thought of having been mistreated and not understood. Most people, most of the time will do almost anything to avoid such feelings by trying to ‘think’ their way out of the feeling, seeking a solution or fix which usually means asserting being ‘right’ and ascribing blame. The truth still remains that being ‘right’ does nothing to alleviate the pain.
However, when we give space for these feelings, by simply ‘having’ them without suppressing or acting them out, without giving them any energy, they will burn off cleanly. The emotion acts on the body; it does whatever it is there to do and, when you do not give it energy, it will eventually pass through much like a cloud floats by in the sky. What we are left with is space, a feeling of expansion. This is a profound way to find acceptance and let go.
Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, wrote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way … <snip>… Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
(from, Man’s Search for Meaning)
I wish you peace.
And, as I said when we parted, if you would like a further meeting, I am sure we can make arrangements to do so next year when I am again in the area.