Wrapping Your Mind Around Adversity

Irony is a building block of life. Its also a reality in prison for a sub-culture of storm survivors working through realizations and fixes, seeking to emerge from mistakes and short-cuts that steered them off course in the past. The socially sanitized environment of prison affords inmates an unexpected benefit that can awaken a person in ways that are unattainable in the gray of society.

Author Malcolm Gladwell writes about Sociologist Samuel Stouffer in his book “David and Goliath.” Stouffer, commissioned by the U.S. Army to study the attitudes and morale of American soldiers during the Second World War, coined the term “relative deprivation.” He studied various factors in over 500,000 men and women and concluded that people do not form impressions by placing ourselves in the broadest possible context, but instead by comparing ourselves to people “in the same boat as ourselves.” Our sense of how deprived we are is relative. “Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands and Canada? or countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, whose citizens describe themselves as not very happy at all? Answer: the so-called Happy countries. If you are depressed in a place where most people are pretty unhappy, you compare yourself to those around you and you don’t feel all that bad. But can you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a country where everyone else has a big smile on their face?” Human beings compare themselves to those in the same situation as ourselves. Citizens of happy countries have higher suicide rates than citizens of unhappy countries, because they look at the smiling faces around them and the contrast is too great. Perhaps this explains why prisoners settle into their environment, adapt to adversity, and work through it together with a unique camaraderie.

But there is another side as well. When prisoners measure their perspectives against a perpetual backdrop of depression, frustration and darkness, less than 30% find a path to emerge with a new beginning. The reality is it is easier to find a needle in a haystack than it is to find a needle in a stack of needles. This should be alarming to a society that commands its correctional system to punish behavior in what is presumed to be forward focused. The drug dealers, industry leaders, doctors, lawyers, politicians and other offenders under government control represent a breathtaking inventory of people, many with incredible educations and accomplishments and all with a story that twists, turns and could belong to almost anyone else. “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

Even under “normal” circumstances, major depression disorder is reported to effect at least one in six men. And some experts report it is considerably higher in women. Clinical psychologist Joel Dvoskin stated that “depression of the intensity experienced by Lubitz, with its debilitating feelings of worthlessness and failure, can overwhelm all rational thinking and decision making.” Lubitz was the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525. He committed mass-murder-suicide on March 24, 2015 by locking the Captain out of the cockpit when he left to use the bathroom. Upon return to the flight deck, the Captain pleaded with Lubitz to unlock the door, trying to break it down with a crowbar as the airplane descended at the command of the co-pilot. Lubitz donned an oxygen mask moments before slamming the fully functioning Airbus into the French Alps at 403 miles per hour killing all 144 passengers plus crew (GQ, March 2016, Joshua Hammer). Lubitz learned how to fly in Arizona. His depression was situational. And the environment can complicate trying to identify whether the needle you are searching for contrasts with the world around you, hidden like a needle in a hay stack, or whether you are just a needle amongst other needles. Is it true that 85% of the population is impacted by some form of depression, or is it more likely that 98% of all statistics are made up on the spot? We just don’t know much about depression, and we seemingly know much less about anticipating its effects. Or do we? Prison is an environment that ensures a saturation level of depressive factors. It therefore is a field available for harvest, and planting optimism and hope under these conditions of adversity can test the ways for faith to result from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual choices we make.

On March 15, 2016, USAToday reported that Aubrey McClendon slammed his SUV into a highway overpass at 78 miles per hour after “briefly and gently tapping the brakes.” Did you get that? He briefly and gently tapped the brakes. Kind of like how Lubitz put on his oxygen mask moments before impacting the terrain at such ridiculous speed that passengers’ faces were found in the debris having peeled right off of the skulls to which they belonged. To a depressed and anxious person in crises, this is not extreme behavior. In the case of McClendon, the former Chief Executive Officer of Chesapeake Energy, his single-car accident/suicide on March 2, 2016 was one day after he was indicted on accusations of federal bid rigging for oil and gas leases that had come under scrutiny. Lubitz and McClendon are two people who made some really bad decisions. But they won’t be in prison with an opportunity to sort through how they got caught-up in such nefarious predicaments because they chose a different path. They quit.

Every inmate in prison had the option of bailing out of the storm by quitting, and many had a solid plan to do so tucked away in their proverbial back pocket. The stories are detailed, and choosing the tougher route of facing consequences head-on, fixing what they screwed-up and rebuilding their lives from the lessons learned is optimistic for society. Men washed anew by the very storms that caused them to falter are success stories with valuable lessons that can and should be captured for the benefit of the war against anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, the abuse of medication to deal with the same is ironically what brought some of my prison brothers here.

On the anniversary of my first year in prison, I share further in the context of past and present. On April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook a microcosm of the world in the villages and communities that anchor the rooftop of our planet, Mount Everest. In the Himalayan nation of Nepal, located between China and India, Kathmandu fell into physical and economic chaos while nearly 9,000 people died in the surrounding areas. A thirty-six year-old woman reported that her home, along with every home in her village, had completely collapsed. By nightfall, people made their beds in fields while the aftershocks continued, 6.6-magnitude and similar. This was the news the day before I self-surrender to prison here in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and the blog I posted about my own experience flying into Kathmandu was a marker that would help me memorialize the timing of this personal year in crises, but for completely different reasons. Outside magazine further reported that Nepal suffers from an ongoing fuel crises that has been driven by a political power grab in the wake of the earthquake, contributing to instability and scarce availability of rescue helicopters in the region (“Goodbye” by Abe Streep, pp. 82-110, April 2016). A photograph in Time magazine (Narendra Shrestha, February 1, 2016) showed the Nepalese people, some in flip-flops, standing in line amongst piles of snow after a 90 minute trek to receive much needed supplies. Samaritan’s Purse provided 50 tons of duffle bags full of coats, gloves, hats, socks, blankets, hot water bottles, sleeping mats, blankets and more, exemplifying what it has been like surviving through the harsh winter season. More than 5,000 isolated families held onto their “Earthquake Victim Identification Cards” as they sought emergency supplies. A year after the disaster, some 3 million people, many in families of 4 or more, are living in cramped wooden sheds not much bigger than my prison cell while bureaucratic snarls, bogged down by a lack of technical capacity and infrastructure, continue. Not one of the 900,000 homes or 700 schools destroyed have been rebuilt. Eating bulk rice and lentils is how they survive while aid distribution continues to stall. So I may be tired of eating hamburger every Wednesday for the past 52 weeks, as well as chicken on Thursdays and square fish sandwiches on Fridays, but I’m thankful that I am not sleeping in a shack with snakes and scorpions like those who are really in crises. “The size of something depends on the angle from which you view it,” Streep writes. And for me, the angle from which I have viewed the depression, distress and difficulties that have fed this storm of imprisonment has yielded a healthy perspective because of the reality I see when measuring against the aggregate of human crises around the world. This is temporary, its a bump in the road, and something positive is emerging from the experience. Hindu-turned-Christian Missionary Sadhu Sundar Singh once wrote “Life’s most difficult task is to have no burden to carry.”

So on this one year anniversary of my incarceration, I’m more than 50 pounds lighter than when I arrived and I continue to work toward the best physical shape of my life. By the end of next week, I plan to have coached 5 more candidates to successful passage of their GED exam bringing the total for the year to 17. What has helped me to wrap my mind around adversity throughout this year is what I want to share next. I call it “The Creed of Perseverance, Optimism and Hope.” It has evolved by reading it daily with numerous adjustments throughout the year. Its foundation is an outline of content by Christian D. Larson, further influenced by Optimists International, the philosophies and writings of Robert Pirsig and Henri Nouwen, biblical studies and inspiration from fellow inmates battling fear, anxiety, depression and personal crises. I hope you find it useful and inspiring.



Today I will do something positive because I am exchanging a day of my life for it.
Because of this price, I promise myself to be strong so that nothing can disturb my peace of mind.
I will look at the sunny side of everything and make my optimism come true.
I will talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person I meet.
I will not let aloneness become loneliness, but instead I will let it lead to peaceful solitude.
I will think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the best.
I will make all of my friends feel like there is something in them, and I will be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own.
I will wear a cheerful countenance at all times, and give every living creature I meet a smile.
I will not dwell on the mistakes of the past, but will press on to the greater achievements of the future.
I will give so much time to the improvement of myself that I have no time to criticize others.
I will be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
Because I recognize that I have a lot of control over how I remember what happens, I will pay close attention to my physical, emotional and spiritual choices as they will determine my happiness.
People are counting on me, so I will set goals with this in mind.
Finally, I will seek God’s wisdom and guidance because I recognize that if I’m not praying, I’m not going to make it. I declare and decree it is so.

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