Contented Confinement

On Mondays I attend a weekly AA meeting at the Snohomish County Jail.  Some of the inmates who attend these meetings are looking at long prison sentences.  Recently a young 23-year-old shared that he’d reached a 20-year plea deal on a murder conviction that would soon send him to prison.  He wanted the others in the group to know that because of the program he believed he could keep both his sobriety and serenity while in prison.  (The Walla Walla State Penitentiary is one tough place).  He shared all this in good humor, even joking that we should save his seat because he’d be returning in twenty years — as a volunteer.

His unconditional acceptance in the face of such a long sentence bowled me over.  I had to ask myself if I possessed such a level of acceptance.  Probably not.  How is it possible to find contentment while confined?

Then I got to thinking that attitude adjustments are one thing that’s common to all 12-step meetings.  You walk in discontented, you walk out contented, and for inmates such adjustments are necessary for survival.

But the truth is life is brutally predictable and terrifyingly unpredictable whether you’re in jail or not.  We are always about managing change.  And whether we choose to admit it, each of us lives in the confined boundaries of our own here and now.  How did Bobby McGee put it? “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” or more precisely, it’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.

The point is we are all confined to live our lives in the day we’re in.

Somehow, someway I got it into my head I could only be free if I got my own way and that seldom happens.  Somehow, I forgot what I learned from Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, my ultimate coming of age story.

Here was a guy, Sisyphus, forced for all eternity to push a large rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again each time he neared the summit.

The question confronting Sisyphus was the same question that confronts us all:  Dare we say YES to the absurd decision to roll our rock up and down the hill of life?

And here’s the thing ~ the Myth of Sisyphus is actually a manual for happiness.  For as strange as it sounds, when we embrace the absurdity of our predicament, whatever it might be, we discover joy, and with the joyful acceptance of the constant push and pull of life, secure a meaningful identity to boot.  It’s when we become self-reflective that we experience happiness.  Camus further argues that with the joyful acceptance of the struggle against defeat, the individual gains definition and identity.

The 23-year-old inmate in the Snohomish County Jail realized that his 20-year sentence was his rock and it would be in pushing that rock up and down the hill that was the state penitentiary that he would find contentment in his confinement.  AA has been nothing more for him than a way to quiet the noises in his mind so that he might concentrate on adjusting his attitude to the here and now.

So it would be for me:

  • Accept the sentence life has handed me,
  • And offer up an enthusiastic “thank you.”

Contentment has always been nothing more than a state of mind.

So I will think often of my friend in the penitentiary.  I will pray for him as he lives day by day, adjusting his attitude to the terms and conditions of his life in confinement.  I will pray that he continues to find contentment and the peace that passes understanding.

Just a thought…


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