It is said that what is around us reflects what is inside us. Working in a men’s prison, I reflect on the experience of being incarcerated.  The men can’t walk too far in one direction, can’t stand in groups on the yard, can’t watch cable television or research the internet or visit a museum. What they can’t do outnumbers what they can do by about 1000 to 1.

So many of them say they are angry about being in prison but they also admit they were angry before they entered prison. They say it angers them that they can’t work for pay but admit they didn’t show up for work when they lived “on the streets” before their jail time. They say that when they are released they will be happy but admit they never have been happy. No matter what external changes they crave, their inner worlds seem locked up. Locked up by the anger they first felt when they were powerless children who were mercilessly abused. Locked up by their fear of yet another failure when they attempt to read or learn a trade or complete high school. Locked up by their inability to tolerate their own vulnerability which leads to rigidity, unconsciousness, and violent behavior.

These inmates are afraid of being present to themselves. They are afraid of feeling their longing and their hurt and their sadness. They choose hopelessness as a mask to forestall disappointment. The resulting numbness in their hearts can be tolerated.

Is that so different from how many of us middle class folks live? We’re caught on the success treadmill and fear falling off the conveyor belt. We want to function as well as “everyone else” so we don’t know what to do with our desperation and our emotional isolation. Maybe we can pretend these feelings are not there and then they won’t be. We’re willing to sacrifice some hope for security. Maybe we’ll never try to paint or to sail or to live in Fiji or to hike through the West. Our dreams seem expendable. We even feel good about choosing practicality.

But what have we lost? Inmates see the walls which limit them. The rest of us can’t discern why we feel frustrated and restless and dissatisfied. Passion seems a luxury.
But by our 50’s life demands that we embrace our passion and say Yes to what we don’t understand and can’t see. An invisible level of reality tugs incessantly until we deny it at the risk of losing our souls. It’s a solitary jump by definition. Our focus shifts from outer world and intellectual concerns (a career, mortgage, family) to our shadowy inner world. No one else knows what it’s like inside us.  We’re surprised by our sudden intolerance of what has always been OK. We must have more and we must have it now. We may not know what more looks like but we know a change is required.

The inmates who make their inner world jumps move into those dark spaces which have haunted them forever and immerse themselves in their overwhelming fear and rage. But they don’t act out. Now they tolerate their feelings and watch them and own them and, thereby, heal them. Just by being present to themselves they move through their limitations. Thus, they find freedom and peace inside themselves. They accept their feelings and don’t shrink from feeling them.  They choose happiness because they acknowledge that they have no good reason to be happy so they must generate their own. Meaning becomes more important than comfort. They can’t waste anymore time with resentment. So they say Yes to life in each moment of each day.

Just as with the inmates, by mid-life those of us who are not incarcerated are challenged to find meaning by delving more deeply into ourselves than we ever have. We risk losing comfort but we acknowledge that we have outgrown the lives we have been living and, truly, we are not comfortable now. For us, too, meaning becomes more important than comfort. And now we find meaning in the moments of our day. We make the mundane sacred by the attention we give it. We practice presence and availability. We, too, say Yes to life in each moment. We realize that we have been limited inside our heads and our hearts by a false way of acting and being that promised safety but has delivered compromise.

We can learn from the inmates. Their struggles are evident. Ours are internal but they are the same and require the same courage and commitment.  

Ruth Cherry, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Luis Obispo, CA.  



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