I recently read about a man who had been incarcerated for 39 years for a crime he repeatedly denied having committed. After 39 years someone came forward and admitted that he had lied at the trial and that the convicted man had never done the deed. Therefore, the court vacated the conviction. After 39 years the front door of the prison opened and out walked the wrongly convicted man. A heart-warming scene, right? Not necessarily. While watching the film “Hard Time” one of the prisoners makes the observation: “Inmates don’t like change because then there’s nothing stable to hang onto. When a schedule is thrown off, the inmate is lost and doesn’t know what to do.” So for 39 years the now-freed prisoner had been told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it; as the front door opened he walked out into a completely unscheduled reality, an unknown reality chock-full of chances in which to get lost.
When, almost 14 years ago, I climbed into my little Penske truck and drove away from the monastery in which I had lived for 23 years I was filled both with the excitement that anything could happen, and the dread that almost anything could happen. Driving along, when it came time for the brothers in the monastery to assemble and chant Matins, and I didn’t, I suddenly felt a bit anxious that I was not doing what I was supposed to do, what I had done for 23 years. So, for me, freedom that day was filled with pleasure and anxiety, much as I imagine happened to the newly exonerated prisoner.
It is natural for us to create patterns in our days since these patterns create some kind of order, some kind of landmarks in which we can recognize where we are in our day. At the same time, it is possible for us to become prisoners of that regularity. The Sheldon character of the Big Bang Theory comes to mind. Sheldon’s scheduling is rigid to the extent that he has pajamas that cannot be worn on any other day than their designated day; in the same rigid way, Saturday is when he does his laundry. Having been tormented recently by Sheldon, Penny lays in wait and when Sheldon comes out of his apartment with his laundry basket in hand, Penny coyly asks, “It’s Saturday when you do your laundry. What would happen if none of the washers were available?” Sheldon goes racing down to the laundry room where he discovers every washer is chugging away. He turns, and Penny is grinning wickedly in the doorway.
There is the need for regularity, but there is also the need to break out of regularity, to take a different road home, to try a new food, to seek to stretch the boundaries of one’s security. I am sure that the exonerated prisoner felt as I did in my Penske truck… newly born, excited by possibilities. I am equally as sure that soon enough, as the issue of not having a familiar structure in which to live hit him, that re-birth also felt a bit like dying. So the real issue for any of us is whether we push through those anxious feelings and into a new life, or if we simply choose to create a new prison for ourselves outside of our old one.