Some of us wake up some mornings and see nothing but rows upon rows of prison bars for as far as our mind’s eye can see. On those days, we wonder if we have forever lost the chance to make something of our lives. We look back and see nothing but a haunting past littered with shattered dreams… we look ahead and see nothing but a future as dark as a raven flying on a moonless night. We wonder if our lives even matter anymore. It kills us inside to think that we achieved nothing significant, to think that our lives might be as worthless as the froth on the ocean’s surface.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us:
“I believe that it is not dying that people are afraid of. Something else, something more unsettling and more tragic frightens us. We are afraid of never having lived, of coming to the end of our days with the sense that we were never really alive, that we never figured out what life was for.”
We may not realize it, but the drive to seek a meaningful existence is as necessary as our need to breathe. Without air, our bodies die; without meaning, our souls die. In every one of us is a void that cries out to be filled. Those of us who sought to fill it by climbing the summits of fame, fortune, power, physical appetites, and even knowledge, have all found themselves consumed by the very void they sought to fill. Mitch Albom, the best-selling author, writes:
“There was a stretch where I could not have worked more hours in the day without eliminating sleep altogether. I piled on accomplishments. I made money. I earned accolades. And the longer I went at it, the emptier I began to feel, like pumping air faster and faster into a torn tire.”
So how then do we attain a meaningful life? Is it possible for a prisoner to even contemplate such a goal? Rabbi Kushner tells us that we must first get rid of the illusion of the “Grand Solution”. He writes:
“Trying to find one Big Answer to the problem of living is like trying to eat one Big Meal so that you will never have to worry about being hungry again… We never solve the problem of living once and for all. We can only deal with it day by day, a constant struggle to fill each day’s worth of meaning.”
How can we achieve that? By responding to the demands of the moment. Whether you are free or serving the longest sentence ever handed down to a human being… Every moment of your life beckons you to respond to it. The Prophet Muhammad, (Peace be upon him), said that on the Day of Judgement, God will say to a man: “O son of Adam, I became ill yet you did not come to care for me!” The man will reply with astonishment: “O my Lord, how could I have cared for you when you are the Lord of all Creation?” God will respond: “Did you not know that my servant so and so became ill, yet you did not go and care for him. Indeed, had you gone and cared for him you would have found me with him.”
Therefore, even in prison, when you find a sick man, care for him. When you come across a hungry woman, share your food with her. When you see a sad face, make it smile. When you see tears flowing, gently wipe them. When you see fires of conflict raging, strive to extinguish them. And above all, when it is time to worship the One who brought you into existence, then humbly present yourself in gratitude before Him.
By fulfilling the rights of the Creator and those of His Creation, our own need for meaning is inevitably fulfilled. Ironically, what we are seeking from an elusive distant dream is right before our very eyes. These simple acts of kindness and devotion are what the Qur’an calls “Eternal”. They take a transient moment that could have been wasted on a meaningless pursuit and transform it into an eternal memory that transcends time itself, like a dove gracefully ascending ever higher towards the celestial realms. Endure.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, while referring to a parable given to Tolstoy, writes, “Once there was a traveler who, wandering in the steppe, sees coming towards him a ravening beast. To save himself, he climbs into a waterless well, but he looks down and sees at the bottom a dragon, its jaws open, waiting to eat him. He dare not climb out and he dare not fall. So he clutches hold of a wild bush growing in a cleft in the wall of the well. This alone suspends him between the death awaiting above and below. But his hands grow tired. He feels he must soon let go. Then he sees two mice, one white, one black, gnawing at the roots of the bush. So even if he manages to keep hold of the bush, it will break off and he will fall into the mouth of the dragon. At that moment, he sees some drops of honey on the bush’s leaves and reaches to lick them. That, says Tolstoy, is life. The dragon is death, the white and black mice, our days and nights. And all our pleasures are no more than drops of honey on a bush that will soon give way.”
Whether we are free or incarcerated, the clock is ticking down for all of us and life is far more fragile that we realize. Tomorrow is not promised to us but today is here, and it beckons us to respond to it. We all have the opportunity to live meaningfully; “The sad sight of human life untouched by transcendence” is what we manifest when we choose not to.