490 | Twelve Years of Social Distancing

March 27, 2020
Friday, 3:00 p.m.
Letter #490: Twelve Years of Social Distancing


Dear Family,

“Happy Anniversary to Me!” (One month ago today) 🙂 In case you’re wondering what gift is appropriate to get someone for their 12th Year in Prison Anniversary, and Siri, Alexa, and Google are stumped too … let me tell you that it rhymes with chocolate. (And it looks, smells, and tastes like chocolate.) And if you can’t figure out that “chocolate” rhymes with “chocolate,” an email telling me of your favorite way to enjoy chocolate will suffice.

As so many of you are being asked to socially distance yourselves and live in increased measures of isolation due to the coronavirus, I want to offer some practical tips on how you can make the most of this difficult time. I’ve done my share of social distancing over the past twelve years, and I’ve had to do it without being able to view funny “I pranked my cat” videos or chat with all my friends via videocall while still in my bathrobe. I do not have a cat or friends or internet or bathrobe. Well, I have a few friends. And I have a clear rain poncho, but I’ve found it is not an effective garment to wear after a shower.

So, here are some tried-and-true ways of getting through a time when you may need to self-quarantine or stay at home or isolate yourself from others in your community.

1) Quit yer cryin’. Seriously. You aren’t dead yet, which means that God still has a plan for your life that you need to get on top of. He is constantly a) refining your character and b) using you to bless others. So, dry those feel-sorry-for-yourself tears, thank God for today, and ask Him what He has in mind for you to learn and do.

2) Make a schedule. For the past ten years of my incarceration, I’ve managed my life with the aid of a Day Planner System. I determine my goals for the next five years, three years, one year, and six months, then I create task lists related to my goals. Finally, I schedule in time to accomplish the tasks every day. Otherwise, I would find myself making up weak parameters for success, such as, “I had a good day because I stayed busy,” rather than celebrating the successful completion of my goals. You cannot afford to let the circumstance you find yourself in dictate what you do with your time. Like me, you may find that a reduced capacity to work at this time gives you more time to invest in your future capacity to work by reading books related to your field of interest. Or, you may find more time to write, investing time in meaningful projects that stretch you and bless those around you. To get these reading or writing projects done—and have something to look back on that you accomplished during this time—put it on your schedule for an hour a day or every other day. And do it.

3) Follow your schedule. Sure, this may seem repetitive, but when your days seem long because your primary activities have been suddenly cut short, you must follow a schedule. A schedule drives your day, gives you things to look forward to, and breaks up the monotony that easily overwhelms the quietness and solitude. There is nothing wrong with being alone (my personal mantra that has served me so well my entire adult life), but being alone without a purpose is a recipe for disaster.

4) Express gratefulness. Spending time away from those you love isn’t fun or easy, and a natural tendency arises to become self-absorbed in such a situation. We are hard-wired to preserve our own lives, but we can take it much further into utter selfish behavior. When we practice gratefulness, we must first understand how God and others have benefitted our lives, and then we can find ways to express gratefulness to them. The more thoughtful the expression of gratefulness, the more special the articulation of thanks, will contribute exponentially to the destruction of selfish attitudes inside us.

5) Help others. Understanding that the world is so much bigger than the room you are in is a key to living beyond your walls. Of course, I can write to those of you who aren’t cooped up with me, and I can serve those who are cooped up with me (teach piano, share my belongings, etc.) But the real joy comes when you choose to do something that benefits many beyond your four walls (or three-and-a-half walls, in my case). Thanks to thoughtful brothers of mine through the years and thanks to those who help me communicate via email and phone, I have been able to participate in projects that bless thousands. Many opportunities exist, even while you may find yourself isolated, to do much good in these difficult days. Be creative.

6) Don’t look for the end. When I first came to prison, I had no idea of what fifteen years looked like, so how was I supposed to prepare mentally for it? I didn’t look for the end, I just made each day count. God isn’t concerned whether you build character and bring Him glory at home or at work or in prison. The location and timeframe isn’t nearly as important as your joyful attitude in it. I’ve never looked at prison as a “trial” I’m going through. It isn’t a trial. It’s just a place where God trains me and gets glory from my life. Being cooped up in your own home shouldn’t be the trial. The trial is battling self, determining what God wants you to do, and doing it as you gratefully serve others without wishing this amazing opportunity would end already.

Now excuse me. My schedule says it’s “Snack Time,” and I’m going to violate social distancing rules between me and a piece of chocolate.