“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you
had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now,” the
world-renown psychiatrist and author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl, advises us.
For several months now, I’ve been in direct communication with a number
of prison inmates in both the USA and Europe who have shared with me
their personal search for meaning during their incarceration.
Minus evidence to the contrary, I can only assume that their intentions
are sincere and that they are demonstrating an authentic commitment to
meaningful values and goals–what I describe in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, as the “will to meaning.”
It can be said that these particular individuals, while they may be
actual prisoners in a physical sense (in some cases, they are serving
life sentences), are seeking release from the “inner mental prison”
that has held them captive for many years and which, in most instances,
was an accomplice in landing them behind bars!
With so much of their personal freedom taken away as a consequence
of their actions, these human beings are not only seeking redemption,
but are also trying to discover the deeper meaning behind their
predicament. With obvious time on their hands for self-reflection and
self-discovery, each of these prisoners sought to describe for me their
very personal path to meaning. They wrote about their individualized
approach to what is effectively a form of existential analysis, and
about their prognosis for living and working with meaning in the
future–whether or not they expected to be released from prison itself.
I’m humbled to say that each of these prisoners has read my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts,
the title of which is an especially apt and meaningful message under
such circumstances. In this regard, one inmate serving a life sentence
who says he wants to use his experience to help others wrote me the
following: “For a long time, I was very bitter and angry about my
situation. Then I read your book and really started to look at life
with a different perspective. I had been misinterpreting life all
along, and am now free of the prison I had created in my own mind.”
Another prison inmate also serving a life sentence shared the following
thoughts: “I have spent my time whilst in custody learning to improve
my own life and becoming a better person. I am working hard to address
the deeper meaning behind my offending and change my life, as well as
gain answers to questions I need from my inner self.”
What is common and revealing in these quotations is that, even
though they are facing a formidable challenge in life that none of us
would ever like to endure, both inmates are able and willing to explore
the meaning of their respective lives’ moments, including those
“moments” that are not so pleasant and may actually be extremely
painful for them. Moreover, the inmates are demonstrating their
willingness to own up to their own lives by discovering the meaning of
any given moment, including those that came during their imprisonment.
They are assuming responsibility for weaving their unique tapestry of
existence, that is, what is their own life.
Now let me ask you: if inmates in a real prison are
able and willing to search for meaning in their lives, as well as
exploring ways to change and grow, are you? Remember, we don’t
really create meaning; we find it. And we can’t find it unless we look
for it. Although we are not always aware of it, meaning is present in
every moment, even in what may be viewed as the darkest hours of our
There are as many shades of meaning as there are colors. And nobody
can determine meaning for someone else. Detecting the meaning of life’s
moments is a personal responsibility, one that cannot be
simply delegated to another. This is the case no matter how much we
would like to do so. If we open ourselves to being aware of the many
possibilities, like the prison inmates with whom I’ve been
communicating, we open ourselves to meaning. Indeed, even the most
profound grief and intolerable circumstances can open us to meaning.
And, to be sure, so can even the smallest, seemingly “insignificant” of
moments in our lives.
To get you started on the path to detecting the meaning of life’s
moments, I would like to introduce you to a process that I call
“existential digging.” I have found this procedure to be especially
helpful as both a catalyst and guide for putting this meaning-centered
principle into everyday practice. Simply put, for every situation or
life experience, especially those that may be important to you and your
life, I would like you to do some “existential digging” by reflecting
and making note of your responses to the following four questions: (1)
How did you respond/react (behaviorally, that is) to the situation? (2) How did/do you feel about the situation? (3) What did you learn from the situation? And, importantly, (4) How did you grow (are you growing) from the situation?
Now listen carefully to the following lyrics by Rodney Crowell in his song, “Time to Go Inward,” from his album, Fate’s Right Hand:
time to go inward, take a look at myself. Time to make the most of the
time that I’ve got left. Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel.”
By remaining aware of the need to detect, learn, and grow from the
meaning of life’s moments, you ensure that you do not become a
“prisoner of your thoughts” and get locked away in your own inner
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming).