I woke early today and decided to head out to the track for a 5:30AM walk. I pulled on my sweatshirt and running shoes and stumbled out of the door into the dark. Last night was a moonless night and the brightest thing in the sky was Venus, glowing brightly low on the Eastern horizon seemingly suspended just out of reach.
As a few laps passed by, my mind began to remember something I had recorded in my journal last year. It was November and just as it had become clear to my legal team and me that despite our best efforts, through motions and hearings, to overcome the narrative the prosecutors had woven there was little we could do. Prison was in my future.
Here’s what I wrote back then:
I recall that iconic scene in Star Wars where the main characters are trapped in a giant trash disposal room on the death star and the walls are closing in on them. A giant unknown serpent was swimming the water below. That’s how I feel.
The walls are slowly closing in and this giant serpent–known as prison–is lurking just beneath the surface. With each passing month since I learned of the investigation more than four years ago my world has become smaller and smaller.
My work life started by running a billion dollar asset management firm with over sixty employees. Slowly, we wound down that company and laid off many of the employees. I started another business. A smaller company and had some success. Then I was indicted. I eventually sold that company too. Finally, I formed new venture with a close friend and worked at that until I decided to change my plea. Since then I have tried to stay busy but haven’t been able to accomplish as much.
Socially, our life has become smaller too. We still have our good friends, of course, but the number of dinner invitations have subsided. Making new friends is difficult–not because of judgmental people, we’ve been fortunate in that regard–but, because I simply don’t have the energy, the will or the time to invest in new relationships right now.
Even planning for the simplest things has become difficult. How far out can you really schedule? At about one year from the trial date it became problematic to plan any long-range events such as vacations. Would I be here? At about six months out it became tough to think about the kids’ sports and school schedules–would I be around for the end of the season? Is this my last anniversary? My last birthday party?
In the final months I find it impossible to plan for simple things like a parent teacher conference. Normally I buy new running shoes every spring. This year I chose to use my old shoes.
The walls keep closing in, my world keeps getting smaller and smaller.
It was a depressing time as you can see. But, here I sit, in prison, 10 months later. My world is even smaller yet. I am confined to a 10-acre campus. My sleeping quarters, my job, and my meals all take place in two buildings. All my worldly possessions fit comfortably in a 4 foot by 2 foot locker. I have three pants, three shirts, five socks, some underwear and t-shirts, two pair of shoes and toiletries. My “luxury” items include an AM/FM radio and a few books. Last week I splurged and bought toenail clippers. It’s the little things…
Yet, in spite of all of that my world is in some ways bigger than it’s ever been.
Despite being stripped of virtually all my worldly possessions I’m quite content. I don’t need more than two pair of shoes, or more clothes, or four hundred HD channels. Better coffee might be nice, but generally speaking I don’t miss my physical possessions. I did find that I had phantom phone vibrations for a week or two on my right thigh. I felt like some Civil War veteran who could still feel an itch on his long-ago amputated leg.
“De-cluttering” has become all the rage among the rich and famous. Post the 2008 financial crisis, the “less is more” mantra is popular among those who have everything. People pay a thousand a night to go to Canyon Ranch and decompress. Stay-at-home moms spend Thursday afternoons cleaning out closets. Movie stars parade to premiers in electric cars (and fly private jets to their villas in Tuscany). Tech titans like Steve Jobs made it chic to wear the same thing everyday–black turtleneck and jeans. Mark Zuckerberg has a closet full of hoodies. They are trying to free up space in their indispensible brains to “make the world a better place” with endless Facebook likes and $0.99 downloads. But, I’ve taken de-cluttering to the next level. These guys have nothing on me.
What I’ve learned is that it’s not the physical possessions that are in the way. It’s the clutter in your brain that’s holding you back. The real de-cluttering must occur in our minds.
Now this is not a new idea and I claim no authorship. Monks and wise men of all religions have been stripping themselves of possessions for millennia in order to obtain clarity of thought and godliness.
When our brains are occupied with our careers, our social status, with our wealth, with our kids successes or failures and with other stresses we are putting pressure on ourselves that is holding us back.
So this morning as I walked around the track in the dark these thoughts kept rolling around in my head. Venus kept glowing at me like a lighthouse in storm. It hung there held to the sun on a giant tether of gravity. I thought about how Isaac Newton observed this back in the 1600s and was able to construct the theory of gravitational pull. He even had to create an entirely new form of math–calculus–to be able to express this correctly. He was a god among men in the Age of Enlightenment.
What made the Enlightenment so interesting wasn’t just the explosion of scientific thought, it was the way the thinkers of that era combined science, philosophy and religion in their works. They were truly men of immense intellect.
A lesser deity among the gods of the enlightenment was Boyle; an Irish chemist. I imagine he and Newton sitting around the Society of London debating gravity. Boyle is most famous for his gas law called Boyle’s Law. Simply put the law states that as the pressure on gas increases the volume decreases. Of course the converse it true as well–as the pressure decrease the volume increases. Imagine air under pressure in a SCUBA tank. We release the air from the pressurized container and it expands to fill a volume 100x the volume of the tank. [Now someone out there reading this is probably a chemist or molecular physicist and you’re going to quibble with my description of Boyle’s law. Please restrain yourself. I’m in prison with nointernet, writing this with a Bic pen on brown paper towels. Doing my best here.]
I am imagining our lives contained by an artificial scuba tank–under the immense pressures that we impose upon ourselves. Our thoughts, our love, our very “soul” is being compressed and not allowed to expand to fill our lives.
So, in short, as my life has shrunk, the artificial pressures have decreased and my thoughts about life, love and the world have been able to expand into the now empty space that was previously filled with nonsense. Just as Boyle predicted.
Today, the highlight of my day will be a long conversation with a good friend sitting at picnic table. We’ll discuss our families, our lives, our deepest thoughts and fears and our feelings about life in general. We won’t talk about our cars, our dinner plans, vacations, the pressures of work or other worldly concerns. We have stripped ourselves of those–or more accurately they’ve been stripped for us.
To be clear, on this weekend of my 18th wedding anniversary, I’d much rather be home enjoying a romantic dinner with my wife. But, hopefully, next year, on our 19th anniversary, I’ll be in a car heading back to my home as a more thoughtful, contemplative, and understanding husband than the one that left a few months ago.