I recently read a book by Ryan Holiday titled The Obstacle is the Way, where he really digs into stoicism and how to bravely face adversity, a struggle, and use it to create something more. One chapter that struck me talked about “love everything.” I really had to sit on that. Love everything. Don’t bear with it, certainly don’t hide it or from it, just love it, whatever “it” is. How do I love the things chipping away at me currently? Of course I love the friends I have and the successes I find. I love my connections to the free world. I love that how I lead my personal life means so much more to me now than it probably has at any other point in my history. I work hard and I feel like I flourish in the hard work. I deeply love that. But prison? How do I love the obstacle of prison? Well, I can love knowing that, as pompous as it sounds and I don’t like that part of it, I’m not like the people who flourish in criminality (like, I get it… I’m IN a prison for reasons other than being saintly). But, I love the rebirth of my values, personal standards, and the emotional healing that emerged in prison. I love being able to foster extraordinary relationships with like minded people and I know I AM the company I keep, especially in a place like this. I can also love that I’m far closer to the end this sentence than the beginning. In the home stretch! I can love that! I love that someone gave me a voice to tell an audience these things from behind walls and I love the book-worthy situations I’ve found myself in, all while being sequestered from society. I love how I’ve grown and into whom here. And I love that throughout this prison time, I’m ok with being flawed, because it made me better. I’m human and I have setbacks from time to time, but it’s in those obstacles that I find things to love…
Of course, this is just one small aspect of this book. Leaning forward into the obstacles is the theme. Make them count. Make them memorable. Let them lead the way to success. From Thomas Edison, to Ulysses Grant, to Marcus Aurelius… all leaders of historical measure who knew how to use adversities as guideposts. But importantly, for me, the idea of love is what resonates the most. That’s something I can truly get behind…
As of August 2021, I have officially completed my PhD program. I have earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in Counseling and Psychology, with an emphasis on the integration of psychology and theology. I have reached the apex of academic achievement, and I have done it while serving a life sentence in prison.
I have worked so hard and overcome so much. I remember the day I was arrested. I didn’t even have a GED, and I was so self-centered and self-absorbed, my worldview so narrow. I am a completely different person today. I have come so far on the journey toward becoming the man I was designed to be. One important thing I have learned along the way is that all my hard work and perseverance has not led me to the end of a journey, but prepared me for a beginning. I am now more equipped to use my life experiences, in conjunction with my education, in service to others, which will define my dash. I have found myself, and I can give of myself from a place of authenticity, meaning, and purpose.
I read a question once that has stuck with me. It was one of those profound questions that cannot be answered completely until after one’s life is over. It asks, “What did you do with your dash?” While some are longer than others, we all get one–after our lives are over, there will be a date when we were born and a date when we died… and a dash in between. Whether a literal dash on a headstone or a figurative one etched in time, we all get one, and all of them impact the world, some for better, some for worse.
The superhero, Colossal, stated that “Over a lifetime, there are only 4 or 5 moments that make you a hero.” Well, I think that there are 4 or 5 decisions that determine your character as well. We tend to think of heroes as having superhuman qualities, able to solve immediate and impossible problems with other worldly force. However, I think real life heroes display extraordinary courage and perseverance in order to open closed minds, to impact their environment positively, and to make change in the lives of others… and to do it on purpose.
During the last 20 years that I have been incarcerated, I have come into contact with some fantastically ignorant people. The most abrasive among them are those who view a long prison term as an accomplishment. Personally, I disagree. I believe a prison term is the result of a wasted opportunity at life, the inevitable destination of the profoundly unaware. Yet, I have learned that prison doesn’t have to define you, but what you do with your prison time will… every time.
Prison time is extremely difficult and painful, but it can be the crucible of pain and struggle that makes a person stronger, whether one wants it to or not–how we respond to our mistakes and to our hurts will almost always determine the quality of our future, and the definition of our dash.
I am in prison, and I am guilty. I deserved to be sent to prison. I wasted my young life. I hurt so many people, and it haunts me. The pain of the young man I used to be and the harm I have caused threatened to overwhelm me during my first few years of prison. I was emotionally isolated and had no psychoactive substances to mask the pain. There were times when I didn’t want to keep going, times when I didn’t think I could, and times when I didn’t think it mattered. I was on autopilot for several years, lost in the consequences of my own sins, knowing I deserved them.
Sometimes in life, you come across people that bump into you, and without your awareness — and perhaps without even theirs — they change your direction like asteroids colliding in space. In the middle of my emptiness, I was given the gift of people who believed in me, even when I wasn’t sure I could believe in myself. It only took a moment for my mother to pay for my education, for the GED instructors to give me a job as a tutor, and for so many along the way to provide love, assistance, and support — and for some to cut me a break when I needed one. Those people are the heroes of my story, and I simply could not have come as far as I have without them.
I am grateful for all the support and care I have been given along the way. For a man like me, coming from where I do, having gone through all that I have, and having hurt so many people… for anyone to give me a chance to choose to be different amounts to giving me a chance to be human, to accept my own imperfections, to love and be loved, and to experience success in the midst of failure. I was one of their four or five moments, but the moments they chose to use on me have literally altered the outcome of my life, and the impact of my dash. Everyday heroes have prepared me for the next step in the journey of my life, allowing me an opportunity to knowingly make the right four or five decisions that have permanently shaped my character going forward, decisions that — were it not for them — would have, in all likelihood, been the wrong ones, and carried me further into the abyss of narcissism.
The biblical definition of ‘angel’ is messenger’ … and many times ancient prophets did not even know they were speaking the Words of the Creator. If God is love (1 John 4:8) and God’s messengers are to love like Him (1 John 4:9-11), then the people who loved me enough to give me a chance are, quite literally, angels in the truest sense, and I am eternally grateful.
I am not yet free to deploy my education, personal development, and past experiences to benefit others on a broad scale. I still have work to do if I want my life to matter. For I have learned that I matter the most to my world when others matter to me. I have never been a hero to anyone, but the impact of those who believed in me helped me to overcome my own failures, which reverberate through me to the lives of others. My dash is not yet written in stone. We all get one, and it only takes four or five moments and four or five decisions to define it. I have never been a hero, but because of my angels, I want to be one.
I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed or have heard about men in this situation either meeting a woman via a pen pal website — or otherwise — and developing a strong relationship or even getting married, only to have it go awry. The euphoria of knowing someone in the outside world cares enough to write, answer phone calls, and visit can be enough to propel someone in prison through a 10-year sentence with a positive outlook on life. I have also, however, seen the opposite happen, where someone has been served divorce papers served from his long-time wife and grew embittered, angry, and pessimistic toward everyone around him throughout the remainder of his sentence. Both scenarios affirm the need for and importance of being loved; of knowing there is someone outside of these thick despairing walls who values what you have to offer them, despite your current circumstance.
Of course I would never criticize someone for deciding to divorce or leave their incarcerated spouse/partner because they have every right to do what they feel they need to do; I’m only asserting how vital it can be for a prisoner to receive love from outside, and how that sense of security can shift one’s entire outlook on life, which ultimately influences how they do their time.
When we come to prison, our need for compassion, understanding, and love is heightened because we are essentially deprived of intimate (emotional and physical) human contact. We have a need for validation that our lives still matter, that we are worthy of the same attention and love we received prior to our incarceration. This is also the reason why many men (and women) who are incarcerated will pay less attention to physical standards in order to receive the love and attention they so desperately desire from someone they may not have looked at twice before. This is not to disparage those whom they will court, but merely a fact of the desperation of those in prison to have a basic human need met. I have seen relationships like these thrive both inside and outside these walls. Through them, many men have learned it is not what someone looks like, but rather the essential qualities of the person that lead to true happiness.
Of course I would be remiss if I ignored the darker side of this dynamic, which is the all-too-common result of an unsuspecting woman (or man) being manipulated into a relationship with someone in prison, only to be abandoned the day the prisoner is released, confirming he was only in it for what he could get while incarcerated. This happens because the criminality with which the prisoner has operated for so long is still very much active; he or she has no desire of changing or ridding themselves of the deviant nature they’ve relied on for so long to navigate the world. Unfortunately, well-meaning people are ensnared in their vicious trap of relationship deceit and taken advantage of for their money, time, and most importantly their emotional investment.
Family and friends, and society in general, are often critical of those who enter into a relationship with someone in prison, but this not unexpected due to the possibility of the aforementioned scenario. But there are relationships on the opposite side of this coin, that are genuine, mutual, and built on the pillars of a healthy union. Therefore, if you are someone in a relationship with a prisoner, allow me to first commend you on being able to look past the fences and barbed-wire to see something special in your partner. Allow me to say good for you for being able to exhibit a level of strength and internal fortitude to not be beaten down and discouraged by the attacks of those who think you are crazy for sticking by your incarcerated partner. You are a special person for understanding and doing what it takes to weather the storms of committing someone who is incarcerated, knowing that prisoners are simply people who need love too.