How do you wrap your head around the fact that you have been sentenced to spend the rest of your life behind bars? How do you free yourself from the chokehold of this giant? One that is loose enough to keep you from dying, yet tight enough to prevent you from living?
For many years, I have fought this Monster using different swords. Every time one broke, a new one needed to be forged. I remember the first weapon I used against it was trying to convince myself that being in prison was better for my soul than being free. I often used to quote the Soviet prison camp survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote:
“And anyway, would you yourself want freedom after so many years; would you want to go outside into the frenzied whirl, so inimical to the human heart, so hostile to the peace of the soul? Would you not pause on the threshold of your prison and peer anxiously out; should I or shouldn’t I go there?”
Indeed, prison has many virtues; it is a place where you can meditate over the deepest questions of life, a place where you can form a very real relationship with your Creator. Prison is an Alchemic environment that can transform your soul into Gold or Lead, depending on your attitude. Victor Frankl once wrote:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
This was a very powerful weapon that lasted a long time, yet it eventually wore down and broke. A new approach was needed for which I had forged a new sword; one that was built on the idea that “to live is to suffer”. I said to myself that suffering is a reality of life that no one could escape. People out there who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses, or face a calamity that has no end in sight, feel exactly as Lifers do. It worked well when you were in the eye of the storm, but offered no way forward once the winds subsided. I once again was reminded of Solzhenitsyn who wrote:
“However clever and seemingly irrefutable such philosophical systems as skepticism or agnosticism or pessimism may be, you must remember that they are in their very nature condemned to impotence. They cannot govern human activity, because people cannot stand still and so cannot do without systems that affirm something, that point to some destination.”
I needed to discover the missing element whose absence caused the previous two swords to break. After a long period of introspection, I came to realize that while both approaches were based on solid truths, a spirit of despair animated them. Take for example the approach of telling myself that being in prison was better than being free and enumerating all the very real virtues of incarceration; what drove this approach was the subconscious despair of ever being free. No matter how many philosophical and spiritual arguments one could come up with, there is something in our very being that yearns for freedom. As for despair, it is a poison that slowly eats away at our souls and spreads throughout our bodies until we finally lose the will to live. Its ultimate manifestation is suicide, but it all begins once we give up on hope and choose to despair.
It took me 11 years to finally realize what hope actually meant. I used to think that you may only hope when you at least see a glimmer of light; when you at least have the flimsiest of reasons to do so… but that is not what hope is about. Hope is most real when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Hope is most real when you see no land on the horizon but instead see oceans stretching infinitely in every direction. Hope is most real when you have no tangible reason to hope.
The Prophet Muhammad, (Peace be upon him) once said:
“If the final hour of this world arrives and one of you has a sapling in their hand, then let them plant it”
The act of planting a tree in the dying moments of this world is one of the greatest acts of hope imaginable. Therefore, live your life with hope. Wake up every single morning hoping that somehow, something will happen that will bring joy to your life. It may be something as small as a letter from a loved one or as big as the wonderful news that you might be free again. With hope, nothing is impossible.
Having realized all of this, rays of hope burst forth from my heart illuminating everything in sight. The Monster’s cold hands began to warm up and his grip began to loosen. He let go of me but as he turned to leave he paused for a moment and said: “A thousand of your swords could do no harm to me. On the despair of souls I feed, you are no longer of use to me”.
On that day, I thanked God for His deliverance and wrote these words:
I remain hopeful,
Even when I see no reason to be
The walls are high as heaven
The doors are sealed shut
Darkness envelopes me in layers
Yet the Sapling of Hope is in my right,
And I dare to plant it
Knowing the world might end tonight
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote;
“A world without religious faith is a world without sustainable grounds for hope. It may have optimism, but that is something else, and something shallower, altogether.”