Pain, Pleasure and Prison

Two themes I frequently see surface in my reading are being present and managing emotions.  There is a Lao Tzu quote that eloquently sums up the the beauty in being present and the futility of anything else: “Depression is in the past, anxiety is in the future, peace is in the present.  We can be sad in a current moment, but that sadness is often about something that occurred in the past.  Regarding anxiety, it is tough to argue that anxiety is not an emotion based on future events.  As I work on being more present I think about the idea of pain and pleasure.  For something to be painful or pleasurable, you need to be feeling it right now – in the present moment.

My reflection on these emotions and life is highlighting for me the fallacy of overly chasing pleasures.  There is a lot to enjoy in this beautiful world – especially in Idaho and with the people I care about.  However, I am recognizing how much more there is to existence and happiness beyond pleasure seeking activities.  On the flip side, simply avoiding pain is neither a means to an end.

I see inmates here who try to find pleasure in what they can to help make the time pass.  At first glance, it appears to be a reasonable proposition.  Take me in Horticulture – I enjoy it as I feel more connected to nature, more responsible for the care of something, and like I am accomplishing a task, because I am.  It gets me outside which keeps me in high spirits and helps the day go by.  I also see inmates who strive to avoid pain.  They want to forget the outside world so they take sleeping pills and watch TV.  There are guys who manage to watch TV for 6-8 hours a day and sleep for 10-12.  That leaves you with only a few hours to fill and you can turn another page.

When this comes to an end, whether I found pleasure in parts of the experience and made time more manageable or worked hard to avoid pain, what would be the meaning or benefit to either outcome?  To simply finding a way to let time move by in a manner that suits my mood.  Because right now, I want time to move quickly, very quickly.  That is a weird feeling considering we do not have an unlimited number of days on this planet.  It feels reckless to hope a certain amount get “checked off.”

I want for more than time to go by.  I plan to come out of this a wiser, more centered person.  I have to work hard to derive benefit from it all.  If I were to get home and tell everyone, “I am back and it was challenging but I made it through this and am excited to start the next chapter of my life.  How did I do it?  I did it by gardening, by watering grass, exercising vigorously and avoiding any introspection.  That was what I put all my energy into because it helped me stay calm and get through the days.”  What kind of answer would that be?  I can supplement my days with a work detail I enjoy as well as physical activity, but if I were to solely seek tranquility through pleasure I would have literally nothing to show for myself – both here and in life.

The author of a book I read was in several concentration camps and kept himself alive through thoughts of seeing his loved ones as well as dreams of teaching about the lessons he gleaned from his experience.  In his book, he writes that a person should find meaning through doing something significant, caring for another person and having courage during difficult times.  While I am here, I am reflecting on the above, on what ‘meaning’ really means.

I spent many of my formative years chasing pleasures.  I wanted to be free, to spend time outside, to travel, surf, mountain bike and generally be unrestricted.  When I leave Yankton I will enjoy those activities but it feels like it will be from a different perspective.  I could be seen as selfish for my desire to partake in them with the frequency I felt was reasonable.  Being in prison is also an extremely selfish experience.  Everyone says, use this time to work on you.  You do your own time, how you want.  You’re trying to get through this the best you can.  You, you, you, you, you.

Sure, I am going to come home a different person.  I am motivated by the time I have to improve, but on the flip side, being here has made me even more aware that being selfless is far more rewarding than being self-centered.  It took the experience of a place where selfishness is lauded to really drive that home.  An example of this is being a parent, starting a family.

In my earlier years, I was hesitant about having children.  I selfishly saw it as a responsibility which would take me away from the things I wanted to do.  The way the above mentioned author writes about love and caring for another person, that resonated with me.  I feel he means caring in a more specific sense of the word and not merely “I care about so and so.”  To me, the idea of being a father has begun to be more about caring and loving and far less about restrictions on free time and lifestyle.  A family is not something that takes you away from the activities you enjoy, it is something that creates a life you may care about more than certain things which previously meant a lot.  It wouldn’t mean I am forever walking away from those parts of my life, more so that other aspects of my world bring more fulfillment.  I could find it more rewarding to care for, love, and enrich the life of a child, than to focus solely on what entertains me.

A beautiful aspect of a family is that you’re building something.  Recreation and stress release are important parts of mental well-being.  However, if I was to go play pickleball three times a week, every week, for a year I may have had fun but what do I have to show for it?  Now compare that to this list:

-take a family walk to the park

-go for a hike with the little man

-teach a child how to be responsible

-how to work with tools

-how to deal with disappointment

-why/how to treat others well

-obviously how to ride a bicycle

Those are things that come after several of the early years.  That being clarified, this is an impactful way to spend time, and it also builds your family, your tribe.  There is something to show for it at the end of any given amount of time and it keeps on going.  That is the part I didn’t see clearly before.  You’re contributing so much – to your partner, your child, your team and it keeps expanding.  There is not necessarily pain in missing out on x, y or z when you’re doing that, because that is right where you want to be in those moments.

Being healthy, feeling good about yourself, even making money – these are all tangential to happiness, but they take you only so far.  To me, lasting pleasure, the type we should be seeking, comes from having a high level of meaning in your life.  Starting a family has a broad sense of purpose and a whole lot of meaning.  I’m not saying that having a family is the solution to the existential crisis that can at times be life, but it is a positive direction to take one’s existence.  While also a challenge, maybe the struggle is what adds to the meaning, to the joy of it all.  Difficult experiences change you, your perspective, and they open up new parts of you.

At this point, I am feeling pain and pleasure in here and I think that’s part of it.  This experience creates each of them and I have to manage that daily.  The pleasures in prison can be sought out, but they are not comparable to the ones on the outside, so it provides good perspective for both the joys I have in my life in Idaho and the ones to come.  The pain is more emotional and psychological, there is no physical pain here.  In that interplay, however, is a big take away.  Recognizing that however I feel in a given moment here, or anywhere, is impermanent.

When I get back home I want life to be about more than simply finding pleasure.  It’s short-term thinking to base ones life around those emotions, but it’s also hard wired in us, and it’s understandable.  Easier said than done, of course.  I have a lot of work left to figure out what the practical application of that looks like, but I also have the time here to read, ponder, and contemplate this more.

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