A few years ago, I used to walk the track while pondering the cosmos with my homeboy JG at a private prison in the Florida Panhandle by the shady name of Blackwater (no relation to the infamous private-sector security firm that dominated the headlines in Green Zone Baghdad during the second Iraq war).
Although he was 15 years younger than I was, JG and I had a lot in common — same hometown, same circle of friends, both audiophiles, both sports fans, both committed to self-mastery and a life free from the enslavement of addiction. We were also both doing a substantial amount of time: him, 10 years; me, 30. But for all the things we had in common, there was a fundamental rift in our philosophies regarding the prison sentences we were serving and how we approached them.
JG is a Christian who is also well versed in The Secret, The Prosperity Bible and other new-thought, mind-over-matter, mustard-seed doctrine. His guiding principle is Biblical, Matthew 21:21-22 which, to paraphrase, says “Prayer and faith without doubt can wither fig trees and move mountains.”
While I don’t subscribe to any religion, I lean Eastern, spiritually, and call myself Buddhish. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha has had a profound impact on my life. I’ve read Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul three times and We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff has been a constant companion and manual to me for over a quarter-century in the chain gang. My guiding principle is straight out of The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the root of suffering and contentment is the way out.
Day after day, lap after lap, we debated our philosophies and invariably arrived at the same dead end. In a nutshell, JG believed that through prayer, visualization, and faith he could will his way out of prison long before his distant release date. I believed that through meditation, gratitude, and acceptance, freedom could be attained right here, right now, regardless of my release date.
We hit a stalemate. He thought it was cowardly of me to accept my conditions without a fight. I thought he was naive to believe in the impossible. In the end we had to agree to disagree. I was in my tenth year of incarceration at the time and he was on only his second. Sooner or later he would come to the realization that hope hurts and learn to find peace in the present moment without clinging or resisting.
Fast forward two and a half years. We had both been transferred to different prisons and I was so immersed in writing the final scenes of On the Shoulders of Giants that the only time I departed the story world of Izzy and Pharaoh was to eat, sleep, and shower. So I was shocked when I called home one day and my mom told me that JG had won his appeal. It was all over Facebook.
That night as I lay in my bunk, I thought about JG and Blackwater and all those afternoons spent walking the track and debating the power of faith vs. the freedom in acceptance. Guess he won that argument.
But since then I’ve been wondering, have I robbed myself of miracles by failing to expect them? Would I be home right now if I hadn’t tapped out and surrendered to my circumstances? Are desire and contentment really mutually exclusive? Maybe there is a Tao between these two polarities, a middle road that allows for both ambition and inner peace.
I won’t say that JG’s release caused a radical shift in my belief system, but it did inspire me to open my mind, adjust my philosophy, and leave a little room for hope… at least a mustard seed’s worth.