Reaching a Great Insight in the Middle of a Tough Life

Over fifteen years ago, shortly before he was sent up for life imprisonment, I had the good fortune to meet Jim. We began a pen pal friendship that has enriched my life.

The following is excerpted from one of his recent letters to me. (I first secured his permission to submit it to Present Time.) Anyone in RC who wishes to establish contact with Jim may first write to me, and I will furnish his mailing address.

. . . . No matter how messed up life is in here, it's still life, and I'll cherish every moment of it, whether good or bad.

You know, a few years ago you told me something that I (please forgive me) laughed at. I had said you were my best friend, and you said I should be my own best friend and you'd settle for being second best. I thought to myself, 'I've got some good qualities, but I'm not so conceited that I'd call myself my own best friend!' Now, though, I'm beginning to understand the value of what you were saying.

How many times in the past (almost) twenty years have I been in this situation . . . locked in a nearly empty cell with nothing but a book or two and myself for company, and with little or no contact with the outside world (the people I love)? Times like these tend to force a man to look inward. If he doesn't like what he sees, if he doesn't enjoy his own company when there is no one else and nothing else to focus his attention on, then what does he have? If he can find happiness only through other persons or material things, then his happiness can only last as long as those are there. But a man who is happy with himself is happy for a lifetime. And, I think, only then can he truly appreciate the happiness found with people and things.

Though I didn't realize it, I think that's what has kept me going all these years. I've always attributed my survival to you and others, but now I think that the main factor that has kept me going is this: no matter how atrocious my behavior, I've always felt there was something good in me, something worth preserving, and no matter how bad my situation and environment, I've known I am stronger than anything negative that comes my way. My survival depends on my wanting to know or find out just how much goodness and strength I possess. I don't think I can pinpoint the moment, but somewhere during the course of that survival process I shook hands with myself.

Your life hasn't been like mine. I can't picture you suffering the things I went through in childhood (though I don't know that you didn't), and I certainly can't picture you committing the crimes I've committed nor growing up to hate yourself the way I can remember once hating myself. It's like years ago I fell overboard in the middle of a storm-tossed sea and spent what seems like an eternity fighting waves, sharks, and sea monsters of every kind, struggling for breath, grateful for every brief moment of respite-a calm sea, a piece of driftwood to ease the struggle-and wondering if the next storm would send me under for good. On and on it went, day in and day out, year after year, wanting to live, wanting to die, wishing for anything other than the constant struggle.

Then one day I realized I was lying on a beach. I'd been there for a few years, and it wasn't sinking. Was I hallucinating? Would another storm wash me back out to sea? Did I dare believe I'd made it? Surely I didn't possess the strength to survive all that?!

On the night of the executions (of three fellow prisoners), I was on my bunk thinking about Paul, Earl, and Kurt, thinking about how their struggles were ending. I thought about life in general and my life in particular. I thought about all I'd been through, all I'd done, all I'd learned. And somewhere in all that thinking I was handed a warm blanket, a sip of fresh cool water, and a bite of succulent fruit. I knew then beyond a doubt that I'd made it. The beach was real. From there I could get up and walk in any direction I chose. And when the next storm comes (there will always be stormy weather in life), I've got nothing to fear because I am stronger than the storm . . . .

Joyce Terwilliger
320 Maple Avenue
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081-1411, USA

Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07