July 31, 2016
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #446: Surviving
Dropped into a foreign country on your own with no resources, and many of us would go instinctively into survival mode. For each one of us, that may take a different form: for some, it may mean immediately learning the language and applying for even menial labor-type jobs; for others, it may mean hiding from everyone except to gather food by night. Whatever method one chooses, the goal is the same: survive at all costs.
Prison isn’t that different from some foreign countries. They utilize the bribe and barter systems, the government controls all movement, housing conditions are deplorable, technology is primitive, and the natives just aren’t quite as beautiful as the girls back home. And as soon as you land here, you discover what type of survivalist you happen to be.
John lived on the bunk just across the main walkway in our dorm from me until his release yesterday. Not a man of many words, John kept mostly to himself, never going to meals in the chow hall but exclusively eating expensive package-and canteen-purchased gourmet foods alone on his bunk. His primary activity was working out, spending hours and hours every day at yard or lifting laundry bags full of books away from view of cameras in the dorm—a no-no. My introduction to John was brief, yet I got the distinct impression that he just wanted to do time alone, on his own terms, since he was just about to get out.
After living across from him for a month, I approached him one day and made an attempt to get to know him. I found out he lives near my area, but most surprising was his answer when I asked what he likes to do for work: ministry! I couldn’t believe it … full-time pastor … college ministry … master’s degree from seminary … author of four books.
Like me, he’d even had a conservative upbringing, so we have a strikingly similar frame of reference. Yet I was surprised by the fact that I hadn’t picked up on any of it before. No tell-tale signs existed, pointing to his true identity; no indicators made it obvious he was who he claimed to be. A picture with his family at church and one of him in front of a lard crowd, preaching, were the only clues John was a preacher in heavy disguise.
I am nearly always on my bunk. When I am in the dorm, I can be found just outside the entrance to the half-wall-enclosed bathroom, sitting on my bunk with my storage bin/writing desk sitting in front of me and usually a guy standing next to my bunk, talking to me. I see everything; however I never saw John read a Bible, pray, or study Christian literature. He didn’t wait for me to ask about his current walk with God, launching into his philosophy of survival here, using profane language, getting tattoos, and never attending church or Bible studies of any kind. The only inkling someone could’ve had about his true identity was when, as valedictorian of the Anger Management Class, he gave a rousing speech that moved the staff to tears. I’m not in that class, and even I heard about it, the speech even fellow inmates were talking about. Like a classic car draped with a cloth under years of dust, no one got to see the gift God built in him.
Just five bunks away from John’s now-empty bunk is Rio, another loner-type who spends most of his waking hours sleeping. He wakes just to work out, and like John, not much is known about him. I began to engage Rio in conversation, and over time, I gained his trust, which meant I got to know a few details about him that no one else here knows. I found out that Rio is not living under his true identity. Like John, he’s taken up vulgarity, left his conservative roots, and focused simply on surviving these years in prison.
Rio began warming up to me and eventually asked for my help sorting through what career path he should take upon release. He’s done all kinds of interesting jobs and has an entrepreneur’s heart, but he’s also a skilled artist. So paranoid that guys from this phase of his life might follow him into his next, Rio doesn’t even speak his natural accent here. Since we’ve become friends, I get to hear on rare occasions Rio’s true native tongue let loose, a perfectly fluid British accent. Amazing how much smarter than me he instantly sounds.
Both John and Rio are survivalists. Their mindset is to preserve the real self by taking on an alter ego with many opposite characteristics from the real one. Both men told me that their primary goal in this was to not have prison follow them, to not have even the slightest recollection of their time spent here. And both men individually complimented me on the way I have chosen to do my time. John said he’d watched me, day after day, and noticed I attracted the “misfits and odd ducks,” giving time to any who needed to talk.
Rio said he’s never met someone like me in prison, “so unaffected by the garbage around you.” Interestingly, God has used both men to speak words of wisdom into my life, for which I’m grateful. I sent John off with a note addressed to Pastor John, and I have just a few weeks left with Rio, who, though not a Believer, acknowledges that God put me in his life to help him understand himself.
In this foreign country of sorts, I’m actually not focused on “surviving,” since I must lose my life for the sake of the Gospel, not preserve it. And can it really be called “surviving,” if we allow ourselves to adapt so fully to the ways of the world around us? We may find in the end to have lost the life we once we had in trying to save it.