September 17, 2019, 11:07 am
|The story is all-too familiar. The gavel slams as the sentence is handed down. Within days, the long and lonely trip to prison is punctuated by a razor wire topped gate slamming shut behind the prisoner as he steps into another world. He leaves behind a different life, often taking nothing but memories with him.
At first, family and a few friends write, visit, or put money on the prisoner’s books. But within a couple of years, the letters slow down, the money stops, people return to their busy lives, and out of sight out of mind becomes a mantra for the prisoner. Soon, his fear that he doesn’t matter is reinforced. If he’s self-aware, the prisoner blames himself for his predicament. He did the crime, he must do the time. It’s not the fault of friends and family. They have lives to live and bills to pay.
But secretly, deep in his heart, he still longs to matter. He wants to be remembered, to have value to those he left behind. Prison has stripped so much from him that he struggles to find a purpose for his existence. If someone would just show that they remember him. So, he anxiously waits, sometimes standing at his cell door as mail is passed out. Will he get some mail today? He races to the kiosk multiple times a day to check his mail. Will someone send a picture or a message? Again and again he is disappointed. An occasional message stirs up hope in his heart again, but it quickly fades. He’s been forgotten. He doesn’t matter anymore.
He turns his attention, instead, to prison volunteers, trying to impress them and prove his worth. Or maybe it’s a staff member he tries to impress. He asserts himself in programs, becomes a legal beagle or prisoner representative, or pushes proposals that will give him a sense of purpose. Somehow, someway, he will prove his relevance. Society will know that he isn’t a throw-away, and the family and friends who have forgotten him will regret turning their backs. Unfortunately, for most prisoners this rush to matter ends in disappointment. Many will resume filling their sense of emptiness with addictions and other harmful behaviors.
This hurry to matter, to be relevant, is purely human. It’s not unique to prisoners. We just don’t have access to all of life’s distractions to prop up a shaky facade that our lives have significance. We are social creatures who base our self-worth on others’ estimations. But in our rush to matter, we often ignore the importance of simply being present where we are. When we choose presence over relevance, we see others who also long to matter.
To be fair, it’s difficult to be present in prison. It’s so much easier to imagine a different reality, a better future. For those who are facing a lifetime in prison, chasing significance might be the best way to avoid deep depression. But even for lifers, feeling like you matter is almost always tied to helping others discover their own value. It means leaving the chase for significance and simply choosing to cultivate a contemplative life, fully aware of people and their needs, whether they are inside of prison or out.
Choosing presence over the hurry to matter is not easy–even in prison. It is a moment-by-moment choice. The longing to matter never really goes away, but we can find some solace in the knowledge that we can offer our presence as a gift to others right where we are–even in prison.
(This posting’s title comes from David Dark’s *Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious*)
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