I have recently been watching a series about men in prisons entitled “Lock-up”. The series examines life behind bars particularly for men sentenced to “life without the possibility of parole.” These men know they are where they will eventually die. No outings for them, no change of scenery, no chance to get away from there, like getting to the end of the line but unable to get off of the bus. Many of these men create diversions for themselves from the numbness of their lives. Some get involved in art, poetry-writing, song-writing, body-building, even saddle restoration!
When asked by the filmmaker why one man made artwork that no one would ever see, the man said that by creating artwork he was also creating some meaning in the midst of a meaningless life. The work made him happy within the context of a profoundly unhappy existence. How many of us live a numbed life, a “life without the possibility of parole?” Perhaps some of the trouble we get into in our lives has to do with our search for meaningfulness? Too often we think that meaningfulness is synonymous with a high price tag as if real happiness has to cost us a year’s wages. Why do we think that? The magnitude of the night sky is free for the staring. Flowers don’t charge us for their scent. Birds sing even without applause.
One of the points that the prison series film makes is that we can be happy no matter the circumstances of our life. Many saints and seers from various religious traditions also make exactly this point. If our life feels numb perhaps we should examine why we want what we want and why we seem unable to appreciate what we have. Perhaps we should question whether or not we should want what we want. Perhaps the happiness we yearn for is actually simple and within our reach, not “out there” were we to only seek it in the ordinariness of our days. If men in prison can find some happiness in the midst of hopelessness why can’t we? Is yours a “life without the possibility of parole?” If so, why?