What would happen if we abandoned the pursuit of happiness, in favor of joy? How are they so different? Artist, author and death row inmate George first came on the show to let go of perfectionism, but we pivoted in the last 60 seconds of our call when he said, "I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life." I asked for elaboration, and received an impassioned essay two weeks in the making titled, The Joy Paradox. In this interview we highlight a few of the aha's, illuminating self and other empathy in new ways. I'm honored to bring you the first printing of this publication - find it in the transcript. Can't think of a better way to begin a season of gratitude than with George's story.
*** The Joy Paradox is published in full in the transcript
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, Tara Brach
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, Eckhart Tolle
Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh
The Joy Paradox by George Wilkerson
"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Declaration of Independence
It has always struck me that while life and liberty are considered unalienable rights, merely the pursuit of happiness is not happiness itself.
Perhaps it's because life and liberty are easier to define, attain and maintain. We Americans take our rights seriously. We'd sooner die than willingly give up our liberty, and even afterward, the enemy would have to strip it from our fingers. We romanticize our pursuit of happiness and have minted pithy sayings to dispense as wisdom for life decisions.
“Just follow your heart.” “Just do what makes you happy.” “Anything that makes you happy can't be wrong.”
We say it straight faced in lofty tones, essentially suggesting that happiness and righteousness occupy the same space.
I've personally overdosed on happiness and nearly died several times. One of the main reasons I struggled with drug addiction from age 12 until age 23, when I came to prison, was because I was pursuing happiness. I chased it right on to death row.
“All I really want is to be happy,” was a mantra played on repeat in my head.
Until recently, I never stopped long enough to ask, “What is happiness anyway?” Thinking about it now, it occurs to me the Bible speaks a lot about happiness and its doppelgänger, joy.
Although some may argue that happiness and joy are synonymous, and therefore interchangeable, I've more often heard the two are rather distinct from each other. The main difference being that happiness is considered fleeting and superficial, whereas joy is described as deeper and longer-lasting. Fifteen years ago, before I received my death sentences, I would have sworn joy and happiness were at least fraternal twins, if not identical.
For a long time I shared the sentiment of most of my fellow prisoners. “I can never be happy, so long as I'm in prison. Plus, they're going to execute me. So what is there to be happy about while waiting to die?” The courts had already alienated me from my rights to liberty in life, and happiness was a product of my environment, a slave to circumstance. Right?
Before prison. I stalked happiness obsessively, did shameful and degrading things for her, slept at her feet, drank her filthy bathwater. But I was chasing the wind. I could hold only enough to fill my lungs, and felt the primal panic, as it faded fast as breath.
After coming to prison. I gave up on happiness; and as I worked to build a life for the little time I had left, I discovered happiness had snuck into my soul, piece-by-piece like a clever lover who, over the years, came to visit for an hour at a time, but had deposited a jacket or clean pair of pants or a toothbrush, each time, until somebody took notice and asked me, “Are you to living together?” As I looked around, noted the pink scented candles in my bathroom, snapshots of her grinning or laughing face next to photos of my own, I exclaimed. “I'll be damned! We are living together! When did that happen?” I couldn't recall the last time happiness had left.
When I first came to prison, I had plenty of sober time to reflect, and I understood my whole way of life was self-centered and destructive. So I repented and forsook it, and instead devoted myself to learning the way of God, which is others-oriented. and constructive. Somewhere along the way happiness had moved into my heart. Ironically, I took it for granted. Now that I'm awake to it, I want to explore our relationship, because it seems paradoxical. How can I be simultaneously unhappy about my outer environment, yet have this glittery pleasure in my soul that feels like Christmas? Hence, this essay.
According to my dictionary, a fat tome I've dubbed The Oracle, happiness is “a state of pleasurable satisfaction.”
The definition for happiness is so broad that I can immediately think of any number of scenarios that induce “a state of pleasurable satisfaction.” Eating a delicious meal, beating the crap out of my opponents on the volleyball court, learning that my babysitter had taken my sage advice, reading a poem that I actually understood in a highbrow literary magazine, taking a hot shower, sleeping a solid eight hours without waking up to go pee, carbon copying by hand a full page of text without screwing up once. I can go on and on.
While all of these make me momentarily happy, none of them makes me Happy happy. I think we all intuit there is something deeper, that we crave; we know it as a nameless soul-hunger, Whatever we may call it, one happiness is shallow and short lived, and another is roofless and potentially infinite.
For the sake of argument, I'll call the unlimited one joy, which, according to The Oracle, is “a cheerful calm delight and gladness.” Joy's definition is quite specific and, indeed, seems to consist of multiple brands of happiness:
Perhaps that's the entry point to understanding the basic difference and relationship between happiness and joy. Joy is more resilient, because it's constructed on specific brands of happiness.
I don't intend to preach a sermon here, but I do need to quote one passage, and unpack it to lay some groundwork. In one particularly revealing passage, Jesus speaks to the complex nature of joy. He says, “I am the vine, you, (ie,. his followers) are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. As the Father (i.e., God) has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father's commands, and remain in his. I have told you this, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (NIV John 15:5; 9-12)
A lot of meaning is crammed into that passage. First of all, by saying “joy may be complete,” Jesus implicitly reveals that joy may also be incomplete. We can possess a partial joy, and this incomplete joy is our default position. To say our joy is missing something is to support the premise that joy is composed of parts. It could also mean joy is the result of a process, happens in stages, or all three.
Secondly, Jesus points out that humans cannot produce spiritual fruit on their own. The same way a grape branch cannot produce grapes, unless it is attached to the vine. By being in a right relationship, Spiritually, with God, we have access to the nutritive benefits of that relationship, which work together to produce fruit. A branch doesn't try to produce fruit, it does so by nature. Likewise, Joy is a natural byproduct of doing God's will.
Thirdly, Jesus says we can acquire only so much joy without God. And what we do get will be incomplete. It is only by being in a right Spiritual relationship with God that humans can reach their fullest potential, part of which entails experiencing the joy of God. Lastly, by correlating himself, God, love, the Commandments and joy, Jesus is revealing that completed joy is divine in nature and origin. It is holy. It is sacred. It is righteous. It is profound, even transcendent. Since love completes joy, we can't experience Joy's apotheosis, unless we love God and our fellow man. In fact, one way we demonstrate our love for God is by loving our fellow man.
The love of God is a disposition of goodwill, empathy, sympathy and compassion toward others. Love cares about others, and acts on it. I'm convinced the love of God is the X-Factor, which transmits joy into JOY in a sort of Spiritual photosynthesis, but I've identified several lowercase joys are lesser factors that are integral to my overall joy quotient.
This list is not in order of supremacy or significance, because each element feels essential to me. Neither is it necessarily comprehensive, as I know only that they directly connect to my beliefs, and they overlap and influence each other. Thus, I've broken them into rough categories, which I'll name together then try to explain individually.
Peace and contentment
Perhaps the poet Wordsworth was describing a person like me, when he wrote of “one in whom persuasion and belief had ripened into faith.” The Oracle says, “Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing.” I must trust a chair will hold me before I'll sit in it. I drink water because I'm confident it will quench my thirst. Before coming to prison, then to God, I merely believed God was real in some cloudy, distant, impersonal sense. I didn't trust Him enough to put my weight on Him. I didn't have confidence He could quench my parched soul.
Now I am convinced God is who the Bible says He is, a doting father who cares about every detail of his creation. I'll come to the practical aspects of my faith shortly, but for here I want to emphasize the creativity of God - believing in God allows me to see all of life as a work of art. The fact we are sentient is amazing to me. Being a poet, artist and science lover, I am enchanted by the raw beauty of creation, the physics of it, the inherent metaphorical connections between the realm of ideas and the realm of matter. It fills me with endless wonder, curiosity and delight!
When I read a poem or view a piece of art. I scrutinize the details, for “genius is in the details.” As I scrutinize creation, explore its various dimensions - physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional - I see how perfectly everything fits together. Every molecule, every breath, every kiss. Every raven, every math equation and fit of anger. Every ocean wave and act of faith...every death. God is genius. He has a place for everything and everything's in its place.
By faith, I see God's handiwork around me, by faith I intuit God moving and painting and singing with me, by faith I access the power of God to do His will, by faith I converse with God in prayer.
Before putting my faith in God, the only time I world glimmered with this mystical significance was mostly when I was on LSD, or magic mushrooms.
I've heard it said that it's normal to feel alien. Until I came to God I lacked a sense of belonging, even within my own family. My parents divorced when I was young, and every couple of years my brothers and I would have to relocate from one parent's home to the other's, losing friends each time. Being biracial meant both my parent races rejected me as impure. My parents despised the parts of me that resembled my other parent. Racism followed me around. I felt ashamed to be me. The me, as-is, didn't really fit anywhere. So
I emptied my face
until it was full
of the nothing
I became, the quintessential
crayon, a thing
of character, lost
in a sea of colors. indistinct
from anyone around me.
i was them, they were me
i always reminded others of somebody else. "I" was invisible.
After I came to God to became a child of God, I "put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew...but Christ is all, and is in all ." (Col. 3:10-11) God shows no favoritism, nor discriminates between races, I know who I am and whose I am - and who I'm not. The world around me has not changed though. Still
i am colored and discolored
everywhere i go. everywhere i go.
there it is, assessing measuring
to make sense of me
because I don't
match the black and white schematic
how i ought
to look and think and act;
or by sucking teeth
it distorts the parts
of me it hates
to beat me up
or cut me down
to size, to fit me in
it's arbitrary. but i refuse to shrink
and duck to fit within its exclusive prisons - never
again while i inhabit it's xenophobic straight jackets
that inhibit my complexities. i am
black nor white
but every color in the spectrum
only me: undefined, unlimited
except by God's physics and morality. i am
ever growing closer to His image. nothing human
is alien to me, but i am
an alien to my races, a foreigner
in my homelands, at home
in this foreign place.
But I am not alone. I am a citizen of a heavenly realm, and I gather with other ambassadors like me. I am part of the Church. I belong there. I fit in. We are family. Though from diverse backgrounds, we are united by our faith in God. The world around me, this prison, may be the same, but by knowing where I fit into it the world inside me feels different. I feel whole, I feel solid and substantial - I matter. I am loved, just as I am. I am not alone.
From age 6 to well into my late twenties my life was chaos in meat form. When I was 6 my dad started exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. When I was six my parents split up. After my parents split, my three siblings, our dad and I moved into a trailer, which our dad accidentally burned down a few months later, forcing us to move in with our cousins. Then, after a few more months we moved into Section 8 housing projects where violence and crime were rampant.
With our parents at war, my brothers and I were torn between them, moving back and forth every couple years. They were studies in contrast, their rules, their homes, lifestyles and personalities in direct opposition to each other, confusing us boys. What one side was right, the other side was wrong - in spite. What one permitted, the other forbade - in spite. Where our dad would beat us black and blue, even breaking bones, our mom was cold with contempt and would cut us with insults.
In the projects, my family was one of the first non-black occupants, which made us whipping boys for an entire race's crimes. Every time we stepped outside a fight could break out. At home, my dad schizophrenia would randomly burst forth in a frenzy of flying fists. I felt both love and hate from and for him. I was anxious and afraid all the time, skittish, almost feral. I found no rhythms or routines, no structure or boundaries. Nothing and no one was dependable. I had little self-control. This chaos accompanied me into adulthood, where I stood for nothing but staying alive and enjoying it while it lasted.
After I devoted myself to God and started studying the Bible, I soon learned of an experienced the benefits of being a child of God. For instance, God protects his obedient children from avoidable harms and trials. Despite being in prison where violence is more common than birds I've not been in a fight in 13 years. In itself, this is a miracle. Before prison, even as an adult, I got into several fights per year. In prison I still encounter the exact same types of people, insults, arguments and confrontations on a daily basis - and they turn violent between the men around me. But as a child of God, I determined to respond God's way. I apologize if I've inadvertently wronged someone. Instead of hot-headedness, I wrestle patience into position. More importantly, I forgive, and I pray on the spot for God to give me the grace to handle the situation peacefully. And the results speak for themselves. I no longer walk around afraid or anxious. I trust God.
Further, after devoting myself to God I became a work-in-progress. God started bringing every area of my life under control, and is still working at it. God is the God of order. He is not the author of confusion. Some call it the "Art of Living," a philosophy that seeks the most efficient, graceful, beautiful way to do everything, to bring a person to their fullest potential whether eating, savoring flavors, sleeping, cleaning, walking, breathing, thinking, writing, studying. Every facet and activity of the human experience. Jesus calls it the abundant life, alluding to fruit-bearing as integral to achieving one's full potential. It involves more than submitting to God's morality. It acknowledges God's genius and supremacy in all things. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your path straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Piece by excruciating and tedious piece, God is ordering my life. My fundamental assumptions and foundational Truths by which I interpret reality and make decisions - these come from God. Thus, intellectually God is honing me, teaching me, growing me. As emotions are the products of thoughts and attitudes and beliefs, my emotions lean toward the pleasant end of the spectrum. I feel safe, secure, blessed, cheerful, delighted, glad. I feel stable.
No one questions that the greatest joy humans know is connected to love, but JOY results from a particular kind of love. God's love. A mother's love for her child being close to perfect, is as close as humans come in this fallen world. Brotherly love and romantic-erotic love aren't far behind in nearing the sublime. All loves are good and bring great joy, but where humans are fallible, God is absolutely perfect
Scripture illustrates and describes God's love well, from beginning to end. Some even called the Bible "The Greatest Love Story Ever Told," and the bottom line for Christians is, simply: love God and love our fellow man. Everything else describes the obstacle to love; consequences of not doing it; expressions of it; it's activities and attitudes and evidences ; etc. Boil the Bible down to its essence, though, and God's will for us is like gold dust encrusting the inside of the pot.
Love does no harm to its neighbor. Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. Love is not prideful. Love does not dishonor others. Love is not self-seeking. Love is not easily angered. Love forgives easily, quickly and overlooks a multitude of sins. It keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the Truth. Love protects. Love gives others the benefit over doubt. It looks for the best in others, not the worst. Love keeps its promises.
Love is a disposition that produces the fruits I listed. Do not steal. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery, etc. - the entirety of The Law - is fulfilled by love. Love is the Spirit of Intent. Love is God's will. Indeed, God is Love. It is God's disposition, and it's to be ours. Love produces action.
Love builds others up. Love and braces others, cares about them and for them. Love serves others instead of self. Love bears another's burdens comforts them, encourages them. God's love is an impulse towards social justice activism. All throughout the Bible God tells us to take notice of those most easily overlooked, neglected ,marginalized, disenfranchised, abused, depressed, forgotten:
Namely, the vulnerable and needy. One day I traced this theme throughout Scripture and was stunned, reading passage after passage of God's tenderness toward the most powerless and unfortunate among us. All together they formed a vast picture of Love that spans all of creation and time. They became for me a rallying cry. A call to philanthropy in the truest sense of the word; Christians are to be lovers of humanity.
My purpose is to love. Love is the right way, The Way to engage and interact with the world. Love is the Sacred Center from which my life is to flow, the Divine Energy the Great Motivator, the Force, Love displays God, channels His power into the world. I understood, and I embraced.
Before I understood and took ownership of my purpose, I felt aimless, lost. My life felt pointless, which reinforced my overall unhappiness. I had that wilderness mentality. But now that I know my purpose, every part of my life must prostrate itself before God's will. Love drives me, gives me a clear sense of direction. I once was lost, but now am found.
Though I jokingly refer to my dictionary as The Oracle because I consult it so frequently, my Bible holds the Oracles of God. It is the authoritative source which defines reality itself, what is good or evil, what is beautiful, what is valuable or worthless, what is important, honorable, wise. It electrifies mundane life with significance.
Before I accepted the Bible as true, much of life, huge swaths of it, were meaningless, just a collection of random occurrences. The meanings I did assign to life were arbitrary and self-serving. Like the laws we legislate, they were apt to change. Right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate - it was all context-driven ,socially decided, voted on, inconsistent, contradictory.
Scripture says that "all things work together for the good of those who love God who have been called according to his purpose ." (Romans 8:28). The same way soldiers enter boot camp for basic training, a new Believer enters enters discipleship. God intends to equip us with the character, skills, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to do His will, to love. At the same time, we are in a Spiritual war, and forces actively oppose the Light. Every moment is, ultimately, orchestrated by God. He either makes it happen, or permits it. We are tested, we are tempted ,we are challenged to grow.
"When Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil," says Mencius.
Even Jesus, "Son though he was, learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect (i.e., complete, mature) e became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." (Hebrews 5:8-9)
Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character.
Because I've tasted hunger, I am compassionate toward the hungry. I break bread with them. I love. Because I have trembled with fear, I am gentle with the weak. I love. Because I've been confused and ignorant, I shine my light into the darkness. I give wisdom. I love. Before I had understanding and meaning, I held life in low esteem. I valued only pleasure, and my sufferings led only to despair and destruction. Now, because of the knowledge of God, I see meaning and value in everything. The profound and mundane are two sides of the same coin. To God, even the little things are important; thus all the little things I do are precious to God. It's not about how much we have, it's about what we do with what we have. In this sense we are all created equal. We all have equal access to God, equal opportunity through God, and we will all be held equally accountable before God. Meaning gives me strength to persevere, to grow, to love.
You have to have a self to have self esteem. By the time I woke up in jail in January of 2005, at age 23, I had become adept at camouflaging myself against the backdrop of others. I was a social chameleon; I could blend in just about anywhere. I suppressed myself and instead mirrored others back to them. If someone asked me what I thought my reflex was to answer, "Why, what do you think?" Then I'd agree with their opinion. It was how I survived and pretended to fit in. I disappeared. I was nothing. I was nobody. It didn't matter.
The majority of the first eighteen months of my incarceration were spent in solitary confinement. I didn't know how to be alone. I committed suicide but survived. I felt utterly useless yet for some reason God kept me alive. Alone for the first time in my life, I had to make decisions by myself. I couldn't ask my friends what to play on the radio. I couldn't check a bestseller list to tell me whether the book I read was good. I couldn't study others to mimic their behavior. It was freeing. I realized I'd been so worried about what others thought of me, so desperate to be liked, I was their slave. It was in large part because I let others define me that I got caught up in drug culture to begin with. I'm not blaming others. I'm simply stating I made my choices based on how others felt about me. By the time I left solitary confinement, I had found myself, and, in keeping with repentance, I was determined to resist following the crowd - unless they're direction aligned with mine.
Still, I was afraid of not fitting in, especially in prison. In here, the Convict Code is the Ten Commandments of prison culture. It prescribes only two punishments for violations: fighting and killing. I wanted to do neither, and most definitely didn't want to be attacked. I was chafing under the Code's rules, butting up against what to me perpetuates a criminal lifestyle I no longer identified with. I can't be both Christian and Convict. I can't serve two masters (though not from lack of trying).
A major theme of the Code is "respect." One of the main ways prisoners try to gain respect and establish themselves in the hierarchy is by being quick to mete out punishment. By fighting over every snub, slight, misunderstanding. But God tells me to forgive and to do not harm to my fellow man. God also says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
This struggle for respect is a twisted system of honor, glory, esteem. Of course, I want esteem as much or more than anybody. However, most of the fights in here are directly connected to men vying for status. I chose to do it God's way.
I find it easy to no wrong to others. The problem comes when others wrong me. I soon discovered it's a lot harder to not fight, to instead try to talk to others about a wrong when they're expecting to fight. To forgive my associates who say, "Man you have to go fight him. If you don't others will think you're weak and try to victimize you." But God told me he'd protect me from victimization. "When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone's way, He causes even their enemies to make peace with them." (Proverbs 16:7). But doing it God's way, I've avoided fighting. Nobody has ever put their hands on me. And I've established a reputation for being approachable, reasonable, forgiving. I'm not perfect at it, but it's a practice
God also tells me to esteem others above myself, to honor them, build them up, praise them, rather than focusing on self promotion. I can't tell you how hard it is to get spiked on during volleyball and have to say to my opponent, "Hey man, great shot." We all want recognition by our peers, and I've found that by openly acknowledging others strength, while preserving their dignity, by being quiet about their flaws, indeed I am at peace with everyone. I'm not a threat to their image. Rather, many seek me out with ideas they have, essays or poems they've written, artwork they've created, because they want positive feedback that's honest. I'll give credit where it's due, but if there's room for improvement, I know how to give gentle constructive criticism.
God cares about our honor and dignity, but from His perspective there are right and wrong ways to get it. Further, the right way involves every detail of our lives, not just the big things. Honor and integrity are a way of living, being, engaging. Idle minds are the devil's playground. Idle hands are the devil's playthings. Before I stepped into my purpose and began walking along the way of God, my mind and hands were idle and destructive. I crossed boundaries because I saw none. I had no honor or integrity because I stood for nothing but survival and pleasure. By devoting myself to God, I made my stand, and it began to shape my character and personality. God says that if we will obey Him we will win favor and a good name in the site of God and man. we will be likable, honorable, admirable, dependable.
Knowing my purpose helps me to prioritize to edit my activities. Loving my fellow man is a way of life; thus every aspect of life ought to serve that higher purpose, whether directly or indirectly. Remember, Jesus said he is the vine, and so as a disciple, I am a branch. "I am the vine and my father (i.e., God) is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does not bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:1-2)
Reaching my full potential means becoming efficient at loving my fellow man, which involves every detail of my life (ideally). And so, I practice the art of living by submitting all my thoughts, words, attitudes, resources, time, energy, behavior, all of it to God. A living sacrifice God may do with as He pleases. God knows better than I do what's beneficial, how every detail works together. Take sleep, for example. In here, guys sleep whenever they feel like it. But since God has structured a daily routine for me, and has moved me to take on responsibilities and commitments, I must go to bed at 8:30pm like an old man. I don't get to watch the good TV shows. If I stay up too late, say, reading a book, it's harder for me to wake up at 4am. I'm groggy, unmotivated. I can't focus during my two-hour exercise regimen, which increases the likelihood of injury. I can't be fully present as I study, my sharp attention drifts. I make more mistakes when writing. I'm grumpy. If someone tries to engage me, I'm standoffish because I don't feel like hearing their problems. I get frustrated easily, impatient. Altogether, I'm less loving, less efficient, less approachable. I'm not saying I take myself too seriously; in fact, my problem is I'm too playful, I joke too much. I'm just saying I get it. When I submit to God, He grows me. When I refuse to submit in one area, like my sleeping habit, the ramifications pile up. It's the Butterfly Effect. God is building healthy habits into my life, but I still fall short in multiple areas every day – just not necessarily in the same areas every day.
I've heard it said, "You'll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of success is found in your daily routine." When I came to prison my whole life was characterized by chaos, disorder, both inwardly and outwardly. I was undisciplined, unreliable, unstable. After submitting to God, finally fed-up with myself, I committed to bringing at least a little bit of order to my life. I'd heard about a woman whose life was like mine, and she transformed it by starting with her bed. So that's where I began too. I swore to myself that I would make up my bunk every single morning, whether I felt like it or not. Most days I didn't feel like it, but I had made my commitment NON-NEGOTIABLE. No matter how tired, how busy, how stressed I felt, I made up my bunk every morning.
It took about a month for it to become habitual, where I didn't even give it much thought. I did it on autopilot, like brushing my teeth and showering. It became a part of my daily routine. Soon after, as I'd enter my cell in the evenings, I felt pleased when I saw my neatly made bed. Officers complemented it when they searched my cell. I was somewhat proud of my little accomplishment, and my self-esteem grew. But one day a buddy was standing in my doorway as we chatted, and he cracked a joke about my bunk being the calm amid in the storm. My desk was a mess of loose pages and pens. My dirty clothes were loosely piled in a corner. A couple empty soda bottles lay on their sides on the floor, where I'd dropped them. I became self-conscious.
I began straightening my desk too. It was much easier, I discovered, to keep it tidy as I went, then to tidy it after I let it get out of control. I started hand washing my clothes everyday, rather than waiting till I ran out. I took my trash out as I created it. I started going to bed at the same time every day, woke up the same time every morning, without an alarm, refreshed. I began exercising five days a week, started studying my Bible every day...
Like the opposite of bomb, order exploded outward from my bunk, as God gave me strength to instill each new habit. Though I'm in prison, there are lots of little freedoms, inside of which I can flourish. As I grew more orderly inside myself, my outward behavior is reflected it, convincing me I was changing. I quit judging myself so harshly because I was proving to myself I was sincerely repentant. I wasn't a lost cause.
In and of itself change is neither good nor bad. God focused me on making positive changes, but also on the quality of those changes...."Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life; You should mind your own business and work with your hands... so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders..." (I Thess. 4:11-12). Scripture also says, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord." (Colos 3:23) As God establishes my routine of activities, He also demands my effort. No half-assing. I don't do everything well, but everything I do I do as well as I can, whether brushing my teeth, doing a drawing, answering a question, fixing a meal, folding a blanket, writing an essay, playing basketball, listening to someone as they speak. God is teaching me to be fully engaged, fully present.
I will always be a work-in-progress, but even so I am seeing the fruits of all this God - lead discipline. My friendships grow stronger by the day. I get along well with others without having to erase myself. I'm considered an elder in the Church. And I often find myself doing things that are unpleasant, painful, costly, uncomfortable – and it makes me smile, because they are the right thing to do or what needed to be done or what I had promised I would do. "Endure hardship as discipline: God is treating you as a son. For what children are not disciplined by their father?... God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his Holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb. 12:7; 10-11)
When I speak of purpose, I'm not referring to some BIG MOMENT that my life is building toward. To love my fellow man is a moment-by-moment activity that often doesn't involve other people. It consists of preparation. It's a way of life. Success isn't an overarching assessment that looks back at an entire life. Rather, it's moment-by-moment. How many times did my mind drift when I should have been listening? How patient was I today? Did I do better than yesterday? Every choice I make is a chance to succeed or fail at something, and if I fail it doesn't mean I'm a failure. I can try again. When I came to prison, I felt like I had failed at life because I viewed success with a bird's eye. God cares about the details, most of which go unnoticed. I'm praised by others. I take pleasure in every little victory, but they also don't define me because I can fail the next time too.
I've never been good at anything - I mean, professional - but through countless hours of practice God has given me an extreme skill in some areas: practical wisdom, art, poetry, volleyball, athleticism, understanding. Every time I connect an abstract theological principle to a practical application, I feel fulfilled, I feel smart, I feel useful to others because I have something to offer. When I create museum-quality art, it pleases me to give it as a gift to a friend, to give beauty and joy to them, where before I brought ugliness and pain.
I feel valued as a friend, brother, child of God. I feel respectable, and I respect myself. I made my stand and God made me a man. And I can look myself in the eye in the mirror instead of simply mirroring others. I no longer remind others of some other person. No, by devoting myself to God my goal is to reflect Him. It would make me feel totally fulfilled if, when people saw me they said they saw God wearing my skin, His light and love shining through my pores.
Peace and Contentment
I learned a prayer years ago when I participated in a Narcotics Anonymous group: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." But to receive the peace of God I first needed to make peace with God. Even The Oracle put first things first:
When I turned from my old life and embraced God, I accepted God's offer of reconciliation. And a deep peace settled in my soul. It is my new default position that gets knocked off balance when I fret, get angry or frustrated, sin. Thus, keeping my peace is an ongoing battle and learning process. One thing I struggled with for years was the fact that God "works all things to the good of those who love Him." I couldn't understand how it was possible.
During my time in solitary confinement, all meals were brought to my cell. One day I got into an argument with the officer who who brought our lunch trays. He lost his temper and tried to toss my trays past me, into my cell, to make them spill out onto my floor. Reflexively, I caught them midair and, now instantly angry, I flung them right back. He didn't catch them. The trays smashed into his chest, the food splattering all over him. As punishment, they took my trays for 8 days. Instead, they brought me "nutriloaf," a disgusting concoction that consisted of various ground-up bean,s greens, grits, tomato paste, and other unidentifiable ingredients, all blended, baked or congealed, then served as two four ounce slices, three times per day.
It literally looked and smelled like gluey puke. I could not eat it. Even by day three, when I was hungrier than I've ever been in my life, I could not eat it. I gagged as soon as I peeled open the slimy wax paper that wrapped it. I held my nose and shut my eyes and tried to bite it, but the consistency and texture on my tongue made me spit it out. I wept. I obsessed. I became skeletal.
I begged God for mercy. Nothing. I cursed God. I threw His Scripture at Him, "How can you possibly be using this for my good! I'm starving to death!" I had no peace. It was the worst eight days of my life. It was traumatic.
Years later, on death row, I tried to never think about that terrible time, but at the same time I felt like it was a badge of honor just to have survived it. I received little money from my family, so I would smuggle items off my tray back from the mess hall. I always got hungry in the evenings, and it would remind me of my eight-day ordeal, so I like to have a sandwich or couple of apples or something to hold me till breakfast. Last meal's around 5p.m.; breakfast around 7:30a.m. That's a big gap without snacks.
One day, a man on my pod somehow missed dinner, so his last meal was lunch (11:30 a.m.) . He wasn't verbally complaining, his body language explained how heavily the prospect of hunger weighed on him. His shoulders slumped, his face sagged. It would be 20 hours between his last meal and his next.
For someone who's not on speaking terms with hunger, it ignites this primal reaction in you, against your will, jump-starting your survival instincts. You feel like you might die even though you're sure you'll eat again in only 14 hours.
He's not the first guy in here to go hungry. In prison, there's never a shortage of people in need; the shortage is of people who will see it, and act on it. A couple days prior I had turned my heart away from another man's hunger when I went to commissary. My family had sent me a little money I was to budget, so when it occurred to me to purchase a few food items for a guy who seldom got money in, I said to myself, "He'll be alright. We get three meals a day, so it's not like he'll starve to death." I was feeling guilty about it, and also unsettled in my soul. Now seeing this other guy who accidentally missed dinner, I realized I had another opportunity to do the right thing. To demonstrate repentance. To restore my peace.
I opened myself, forced myself to truly see this other man's hunger. I realized, then, his fixed frown came from more than hunger. Here on death row, perhaps only a dozen jobs were available. About 140 men populate this place. Those of us without jobs are at the mercy of friends and family on the outside who are kind and generous enough to send us money for food, toiletries, stamps, phone calls. To be penniless is to be imprisoned within prison. It means having to stand around an hour at a time for a prison tray. It means using prison made soap that dries out your skin and makes it itch. The prison issues in indigent supplies once a month, which means budgeting one battery – a razor requires two - for a radio, which drinks it in 12 hours; one packet of dental floss; one 8 ounce bottle of shampoo, one travel size tube of toothpaste, one mini-deodorant. Being indigent means not using the phone at all, unless someone will accept a collect call.
To be poor in prison is to practice self denial, to say NO to yourself all day long. I've been there plenty of times to know. What really made it difficult was that it made me feel abandoned by my loved ones, forgotten, alone. I watched the men around me enjoy luxuries I didn't have. It kept me outside the circle,. Guys munched on snacks when we watched the two weekly movies, they drank cups of coffee to start their morning, they could skip dinner on "mystery meat" night. They could chitchat with whomever they wanted on the phone. They averted their gazes and avoided conversations with me because they thought I might ask them for something - which I've never done cause I'm too proud to beg, too ashamed. I couldn't stand their pity, their contempt, their smug looks. Being indigent alienated me.
And it alienated the guy I chose not to help, since I did what had been done to me. But isn't the Golden Rule do unto others I'd want done to me? Aren't I a Christian? Is it not by my love that they'll know me as a child of God?
I recalled my forced fast and thought, "I went 8 days without eating...hunger doesn't scare me anymore. But it does scare others." I was unable to change my hunger, but I had the power now to change my neighbor's. So I put together a fat grocery bag of goodies and took it to the guy. I said, "Look, I know you didn't ask and that you'll say you don't want this, so I'm not going to offer." I shoved past his pride and into his cell, and set the food and toiletries on his bunk, spilling out bags of chips, packs of coffee, ramen soups. Then I turned around, saying, "Consider it a blessing from God. A gift. You can trash it, eat it, give it away, but it's yours..." Then I walked away.
When I return to my cell, insight blossomed in my mind and I was overcome with emotion. Tears stung my eyes. I saw that God hadn't abandoned me during the worst eight days of my life. If I hadn't gone through it, I wouldn't have been able to truly connect with my neighbors' hunger, nor been moved to sympathy and compassion. At best I would only have been able to imagine, but not to feel it. My suffering expanded my capacity for compassion, for love.
Now I could find meaning in my sufferings in a way I could hang on to. It was no longer an academic exercise. I don't enjoy suffering. I never do. But beneath the outward displeasure is a deeper undercurrent of peace that comes from the conviction that God is using my suffering to make me a better man, more human, more Godly.
God God granted me the wisdom to understand that while I couldn't always change my outward circumstances, I could always choose my attitude.
However, there's still another elemental component of peace I grapple with: gratitude. Before I started learning God's way, when I'd heard that I had the right to pursue happiness, I heard it as, "I have the right to be happy." Period. I was entitled to it, it was self-evident, it was God-endowed and unalienable. I was ignorant of the Truth. Some rights are conditional.
I've done so many wrongs, hurt so many people, that I didn't deserve even to live. Once I acknowledged this, I was able to come to God, on my knees both literally and figuratively. I came to understand that any blessings I received were gifts, kindnesses, mercies - not debts. Nobody owed me a thing. Moreover, I understood the transient nature of life. You can do and say all the right things, work hard all your life, and a faulty wire in your kitchen could start a fire that burns everything you'd built up. Stability, truly, was an inward state, not outward.
So understanding all this gave me the mental weapons to maintain my peace, I felt defeated as often as victorious. But a few years ago I crossed a theological threshold, one that would help me keep my peace in my pocket. I was studying this passage of Scripture: "But Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into money and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (I Tim. 6:6 - 10)
I felt convicted. I was, in a way, still stalking happiness, and I thought money was the answer. Money equalled access. I imagined that money would expand my space, spread my invisible prison walls apart. Money equals freedom. This attitude rejected that God was in control and knew what was best for me. I read a warning in that passage. God was showing me how easily I could slip into my old skin. Providentially, I heard a radio broadcast sermon that reinforced the warning.
Actually, the sermon showed me the right way, in contrast to the warning. What stood out to me was, "Gratitude is wanting what you have, not getting what you want." Being a death row prisoner, I am under many restrictions concerning what I can have or do, and I constantly pestor God for more. When I heard that sermon, I prayed for God to make me more grateful for what I have, to help me stop obsessing over what I don't have.
Around that time I was down to my last few ramen soups. I knew we had a crappy dinner that night so I decided to skip it and spent that extra hour working on my writing project. I hated having to deal with the hassle of waiting around for chow call, jostling for line position, being forced to cram the food down in 5 minutes, etc. I also hated to interrupt a project when I was in the zone. So I was glad I had a few ramens.
As the soup cooked I could smell its meaty aroma, and my stomach growled. I thought, "I'm so hungry! That soup is going to be delicious..." I looked forward to that soup. I was really grateful I had it. Just then I sensed God speaking into me, explaining how my hunger is what helps me to appreciate and enjoy food – hunger is the best seasoning. Hunger and the thing which satisfies it are designed to work together. Joy flooded my soul, and I prayed, "Lord, thank you for hungers and thirsts! And thank you for the soups. And thank you for granting me understanding, and helping me to be more grateful." I realized how, without an attitude of gratitude, I couldn't hope to hang on to peace. Hunger, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I usually saw it as "bad" simply because I didn't like it and it could kill me if it weren't satisfied in time. But God designed hunger to serve a good purpose.
I sensed God's pleasure with me, that I accepted His way, saw it as good, and was grateful. I liked that some lights, like stars, can only be seen and enjoyed when set against the darkness. As an artist I too use the concept of contrast to highlight and enhance. Knowing that God uses contrast to enhance the pleasure of life has equipped me with a powerful tool. It helps to keep me content.
When Dante was entering hell he saw a sign that read, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here!" When I entered prison, I abandoned all hope at ever being happy. With nothing to look forward to, I spent the next 11 or 12 years on the brink of suicide.
According to The Oracle, to hope is "to look forward to something with a reasonable confidence it will come about; it is the pleasant, excited feeling of anticipation."
The operative word there is "reasonable": Hope is the result of a rational process. That is, because of facts, evidence, and logic, we conclude that something we desire will likely come to pass. Thus hope is born. Our soul strains forward to meet it, it. Without the element of sound rationale, without facts, evidences, the promise given by a credible source, our hope is actually just a wish wearing a mask.
wish - to want; to desire; to long for.
Notice that wishes have no wings. Hope without reasoning = unreasonable expectations = disappointments.
I reasoned that I had no hope because hope is goal-oriented. My goal was happiness, and I figured that without the freedom to pursue it I would never catch it. I saw prison as a total loss of freedom, which equated to a total loss of hope. All I saw ahead of me was endless black and empty time.
In actuality, entering prison was not a total loss of freedom. Although there are a million things I can no longer do, entire lifestyles I no longer have access to. I can't go Christmas shopping on Black Friday, or hug the breath out of my mom, or surprise my girlfriend with concert tickets. But even before prison, there were lifestyles and activities I didn't foresee ever happening. I couldn't fly first class. I couldn't hug a supermodel, I couldn't enter the marines because of my tattoos. I couldn't quit smoking cigarettes. I couldn't quit getting high. I couldn't be myself. So was I really free before prison?
On death row, as a child of God, there are still millions of things I can do. I can stick to an exercise routine. I can study. I can stay sober. I can read a good book, or kick some butt on the basketball court. I can write a poem, or a book, or draw a portrait. I can become a better person. I can encourage my neighbor.
I look forward to my day, which I've learned to fill with constructive activities. I hope. I look forward to growing smarter, wiser. I hope. I look forward to getting into better shape. I hope. Little hopes, like stars, twinkle in my dark environment.
And the more I learn about and experience God, the more hope I have, because God always keeps His word – and His word is filled with promises. I look forward to seeing my dad in heaven. I look forward to seeing what God is doing in, through, and around me. I see what God has already done in my life and it excites me because I know it only gets better. My hopes are reasonable, and I sense my blessings coming; here, death row, is no obstacle. Prison cannot stop what's coming.
To hope us to enjoy a slice of the future now. Some of my favorite memories are of dance clubs my free-spirited friends and I used to frequent. From the parking lot we could hear the upbeat music in the distance. It swayed our bodies and pleasant anticipation flushed our faces. Though what we felt was only a shadow of what was coming, we embraced it, enjoyed it, believed the promise that carried. The hope of God is music rippling into my spirit from a future that is running to meet me. My heart quickens with its rhythms. My actions are swayed by it. My joy is swollen with it, spills out of me as laughter, and poetry, and compassion.
When I came to prison I finally devoted myself to God, and faith filled my heart with astonishment. I wonder at the magic of creation, mouth agape like a little kid. Learning the whats and hows, through science, only makes it even more amazing to me.
When I came to God, God adopted me into His family. I am a member of a worldwide community, an ambassador of Heaven. I fit in. I belong with and to God and my brethren. Nevertheless, while I may still feel like a foreigner here because of my faith in a fallen world, I no longer feel alien. We are all human, and nothing human is alien to me.
When I came to God I was chaos incarnate. God stilled my soul, made me feel safe and secure. Out of chaos God brought stability.
With knowledge of God came a clear understanding of my purpose. To live according to my purpose, moment-by-moment, is to walk into my Destiny. God's love directs my steps, gives me direction like a blazing arrow floating in front of me. I follow the Light. Where I once was lost, I now am found.
Was blind, but now I see. My Bible is my dictionary for life itself. It defines my reality, cracks open the mundane to reveal life's glittering miracle. Even suffering serves a purpose in God's hands; it isn't random or meaningless. "Consider it pure joy...when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete..." (James 1:2-4) Thus, I know how to process trials and not despair. I persevere. I grow. I thrive. I love.
The more order God brings into my life, the more disciplined and self-controlled I become, the more I shine God into the world. The more like God I am, the better I become at the art of living. I feel unique, valued, seen, and appreciated. Someone asked me recently, "If you could be anyone else in the world, anyone from all of history, who would you be?" After considering it, I stunned us both by answering, "Me." I feel honored and privileged to be the man God has created me to be. I embrace myself.
I can't change my past, I can't change other people, and I can't change the rain. But I can change my future and my present attitude, and I can bring an umbrella. Though I still struggle with it, God is developing my attitude of gratitude, and as a result I mostly am content. I am at peace with God and possess the peace of God.
It is said that we can live without food for weeks, without water for days, without air for minutes - but we cannot truly live even a moment without hope. For to be hopeless is to hear no music in the distance, is to be consumed by silence in one's soul. For me, hope's melody grows louder by the minute.
PEACE & CONTENTMENT.
With my Spiritual practice and beliefs running through these beads, JOY adorns my neck, a garland of victory. Divine Joy, Sacred Joy, Abiding Joy that transcends my outward circumstances, because it is rooted in my attitude. I am joyful despite my circumstances: Joy is a form of resistance against it.
Before I came to prison, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did in my selfish pursuit of happiness, it never lasted. I had an insatiable hunger in my soul. I was trying to use strange fire to achieve what only a sacred flame could sustain. In fact, it was my pursuit of happiness that led me to prison, because doing drugs was my primary source of happiness and I was willing to do almost anything for my next high. My desire for happiness was a cosmic supergravity that bent my will, my thoughts, my behavior, everything in me toward it; my life revolved around it, was ultimately sucked into and crushed by it.
I smoked happiness in glass bongs, I snorted it by the line off fancy mirrors and glass coffee tables, I threw dollars at it – made it rain on her as she danced on poles and removed her clothes. I thought I was living the life, but I was killing myself. I erased myself to just hang out with happiness.
To supply my expensive brands of happiness I had to peddle it, and to sell happiness by the gram meant living in a culture where safety was taped to hair triggers - a finger twitch could shatter it with a BANG. Since I didn't devote myself to God and my fellow man until after I came to death row, I can say it was only after being sentenced to die that I died to self and my JOY sprang to life.
This is all I've ever wanted...