“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if youhad acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now,” theworld-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 numberof prison inmates in both the USA and Europe who have shared with metheir personal search for meaning during their incarceration.Minus evidence to the contrary, I can only assume that their intentionsare sincere and that they are demonstrating an authentic commitment tomeaningful 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 beactual prisoners in a physical sense (in some cases, they are servinglife 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 consequenceof their actions, these human beings are not only seeking redemption,but are also trying to discover the deeper meaning behind theirpredicament. With obvious time on their hands for self-reflection andself-discovery, each of these prisoners sought to describe for me theirvery personal path to meaning. They wrote about their individualizedapproach to what is effectively a form of existential analysis, andabout their prognosis for living and working with meaning in thefuture–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 undersuch circumstances. In this regard, one inmate serving a life sentencewho says he wants to use his experience to help others wrote me thefollowing: “For a long time, I was very bitter and angry about mysituation. Then I read your book and really started to look at lifewith a different perspective. I had been misinterpreting life allalong, and am now free of the prison I had created in my own mind.”Another prison inmate also serving a life sentence shared the followingthoughts: “I have spent my time whilst in custody learning to improvemy own life and becoming a better person. I am working hard to addressthe deeper meaning behind my offending and change my life, as well asgain answers to questions I need from my inner self.”
What is common and revealing in these quotations is that, eventhough they are facing a formidable challenge in life that none of uswould ever like to endure, both inmates are able and willing to explorethe meaning of their respective lives’ moments, including those”moments” that are not so pleasant and may actually be extremelypainful for them. Moreover, the inmates are demonstrating theirwillingness to own up to their own lives by discovering the meaning ofany given moment, including those that came during their imprisonment.They are assuming responsibility for weaving their unique tapestry ofexistence, that is, what is their own life.
Now let me ask you: if inmates in a real prison areable and willing to search for meaning in their lives, as well asexploring ways to change and grow, are you? Remember, we don’treally create meaning; we find it. And we can’t find it unless we lookfor it. Although we are not always aware of it, meaning is present inevery moment, even in what may be viewed as the darkest hours of ourlives.
There are as many shades of meaning as there are colors. And nobodycan determine meaning for someone else. Detecting the meaning of life’smoments is a personal responsibility, one that cannot besimply delegated to another. This is the case no matter how much wewould like to do so. If we open ourselves to being aware of the manypossibilities, like the prison inmates with whom I’ve beencommunicating, we open ourselves to meaning. Indeed, even the mostprofound grief and intolerable circumstances can open us to meaning.And, to be sure, so can even the smallest, seemingly “insignificant” ofmoments in our lives.
To get you started on the path to detecting the meaning of life’smoments, I would like to introduce you to a process that I call”existential digging.” I have found this procedure to be especiallyhelpful as both a catalyst and guide for putting this meaning-centeredprinciple into everyday practice. Simply put, for every situation orlife experience, especially those that may be important to you and yourlife, I would like you to do some “existential digging” by reflectingand 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:
“It’stime to go inward, take a look at myself. Time to make the most of thetime 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 themeaning of life’s moments, you ensure that you do not become a”prisoner of your thoughts” and get locked away in your own innermental prison!
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).