August 21, 2016
Sunday, 4:00 p.m.
Letter #449: The Secret of a Joy-Filled Life
I recently received a letter from a guy I spent six years with in Arizona. He wrote to give me an update on where he’s housed now, at a facility similar to mine, and to tell me that one of my business class students has run his own business (from the business plan he wrote up in my class) for the past few years.
While this was encouraging, I appreciated even more a statement he made in the letter referring to my character: “In all these six years I’ve known you, I never saw you in a bad mood.” Well, my family knows I can have attitude problems, but these arise usually when I lose sight of all the blessings God has given me. Gratefulness is why I’m usually joyful.
This week, we had a massive power outage that affected the surrounding area and the two prisons across the street from us. With no power, we all had to stay inside our dorms to wait it out, since the “electric eye” fence monitoring system was out of order. The humidity inside our concrete enclosure built up with no air circulating, and we soon had wet, slick concrete floors that were fun to run and ski on.
Not everyone was having fun, however, as the atmosphere and inmates alike became hot and stuffy. The stress was compounded by consequential inconveniences: no showers, no running water, no lights, no air conditioning, no fans, sack dinners, no telephones, etc.
It was a little uncomfortable, I’ll admit. It was like an unfortunate backpacking trip with a local gang member, where the pack with the toilet that flushes falls into a ravine. The power was restored late at night, offering a bit of relief from the heat and putrid smell, for which I was grateful since my bunk is closest to the bathroom.
The next day, a buddy of mine said, “Ugh! That was my WORST day in prison!” I had a fun time with that one, retorting: “Really? Was it the lack of air conditioning or the hard-boiled eggs for dinner that made it so bad?” We have WAY more than others do!
A couple days later, at breakfast, I’d particularly enjoyed the meal and was walking back to my dorm several paces behind another inmate. An officer, curious to know what we had been served for breakfast, asked what we had eaten. Responding with vulgar language, the other inmate said, basically, “Something horrible!”
I couldn’t believe it! He turned down the hallway leading to our dorm and was out of earshot, so I quickly told the officer as I passed by: “Actually, we had oatmeal, French toast with peanut butter and maple syrup, eggs, potatoes, milk, and a banana. And it was DELICIOUS!” The officer smiled back at my enthusiasm.
How could we see the exact same breakfast so differently? One of us apparently expected Denny’s, and the other expected bread and water but is grateful that God gives so much more.
Later that day, another officer referred to me as “Mr. Smiley” and then later told another staff member that “this guy is always smiling.” Turning to me, she asked, “Why ARE you always smiling?”
Thinking she was only half-serious, I just flippantly said, “Well, because it could be so much worse, right?”
She nodded, but she waited, expecting more. “Well,” I said, “I sure am blessed. I have a lot of people who love me, and I’m grateful. That’s why I’m always smiling.”
She knows I am a Christian, because she sees me attend church services and read my Bible on my bunk, so I didn’t feel I needed to expound on the fact that “my attitude stems from character that is the fruit of commitments made because of doctrinal beliefs rooted in my faith in God.” Sometimes it’s better to plant a seed than to shove an entire orange grove through the front door.
Just a couple of days later, soon after breakfast, the Chief of Security came into our room to tell us our dorm would be searched thoroughly. We had to immediately exit the dorm wearing just a T-shirt and boxers, carrying our other clothes with us as we prepared to go outside to wait it out.
You’d think that he had announced the imminent bankruptcy of Chick-fil-A restaurants or that the Super Bowl would not be televised this year. Groans, complaints, and grumbling filled the dorm. We weren’t allowed to use the restroom, and then we had to wait for three other dorms to exit to the yard before it was our turn.
Out in the hallway we were thoroughly searched by officers before being dismissed to wait outside. Noticing a lieutenant overseeing the process, I smiled and greeted him as I walked out. He called out to me, “You’re always happy, aren’t you, Christopher?”
I just said, “Yes, sir—I’m blessed!” and joined everyone else.
I’m no better than anyone else here, that’s for sure. I don’t flaunt an air of holiness and self-righteousness, and I don’t feign joyfulness just so that staff members will notice me. (More often than not, staff has assumed I’m up to no good or on drugs because I’m always cheerful.) Behavior based upon insincerity is short-lived, anyway, and therefore not the best decision when you live in a concrete box with eighty pairs of eyes on you 24/7.
No, I was trained as a child to always be grateful, no matter what. As I grew older, I learned to try to see God’s purposes in what seems to be disappointing circumstances or difficulties. I visited three third-world countries and never forgot the vast difference in what is considered to be “normal” there: dirt floors, sparse food and water supplies, and inadequate medical care. Children in all three places typically had just one set of clothes and one prized toy. Comparatively, those people I met in other countries would consider the life I lead in prison luxurious.
And finally, I really am blessed. I get visits. I talk to family and friends on the phone. I get mail, lots of mail. I have incredible people who let me know they are praying for me, including from several church groups. To get caught up in the supposed inadequacies of my current circumstances would be ludicrous. Thank you for the particular blessing YOU are in my joy-filled life!