Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Attitude and Gratitude

Years ago -- indeed, many years ago -- I came across a quote by Chuck Swindoll about attitude:
The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.

For someone about to enter prison, perhaps nothing is more relevant than attitude. It is a concept I have tried to instill in my daughters also and that I hope I can model in my current circumstances.

Another quote that has a huge impact on my life as a Christian is from the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen whose books on the spiritual life are widely read by Catholics and Protestants alike. While I have read several variations of his comments, this is my favorite:

It is sometimes said: "We are really grateful for all the good things... We simply have to accept or try to forget the painful moments." The attitude expressed in these words made me aware of how often we tend to divide our past into good things to remember with gratitude and painful things to accept or forget. Once we accept this division, however, we quickly develop a mentality in which we hope to collect more good memories than bad memories, more things to be grateful for than things to be resentful about, more things to celebrate than things to complain about. But this way of thinking, which at first glance seems quite natural, prevents us from truly allowing our whole past to be the source from which we live our future. Is this the gratitude to which God calls us?

Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude. It is a difficult discipline to constantly reclaim my whole past as the concrete way in which God has led me to this moment and is sending me into the future. It is hard precisely because it challenges me to face the painful moments-experiences of rejection and abandonment, feelings of loss and failure-and gradually to discover in them the pruning hands of God purifying my heart for deeper love, stronger hope, and broader faith.

I am gradually learning that the call to gratitude asks us to say, "everything is grace." When our gratitude for the past is only partial, our hope for a new future can never be full.

To reclaim our history in its totality means that we no longer relate to our past as years in which only good times can be remembered, and bad times need to be forgotten, but as opportunities for an ongoing conversion of the heart. If we are to be truly ready to ask for a new task in the service of God, truly free to be sent into a new mission, our entire past, gathered into the spaciousness of the converted heart, must become the energy that moves us toward the future.

I cannot tell you how revolutionary and radical this concept was for me. Now, as I am about to enter prison, I do not view it as 3 months of "wasted" time; that is, days and months that go in the "bad memories" column that I somehow have to work extra hard when I get out to compensate for with "good memories." My days in prison are just as much my "life" as one of my vacations in Italy. Life has more to do with what goes on inside me than outside me.

It is important not to prematurely label an experience as a blessing or a curse. Oftentimes, blessings are disguised as curses and curses disguised as blessings and it is only with benefit of hindsight (usually distant hindsight) that one can adequately evaluate the full significance of a past experience.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the insight. Your reflections seem genuine....and I intend to share your thoughts with my 21 & 23 year olds.

Anonymous said...

On another note....I have spent an hour or so reading over your "The Rabbit Hole" blog. I linked over to the "Attitude and Gratitude" because of the subject matter.
I have found your blog interesting and beneficial. Your motion seemed lengthy and too legal. You quoted and reiterated lots of facts assuming "as if" the judge didn't already know the law and he needed YOU to remind him. The most important concept I think you missed was the lack of remorse you Your motion lacked the genuine, sincere recognition that you did something wrong and deserved the punishment you received. That you felt the punishment you received was served. Lastly, why in your own words ...not quoted from a law book... you are/were asking the judge for early termination of your probation. What hardship was/is it imposing on you? Humble yourself!

Bill Bailey said...

Thanks for your comments. As for the second remark, I had both of my lawyers look at it and they thought it was fine.

The reason it was so "legal" is that my request was highly unusual and I had reason to think the judge doesn't receive them often and therefore may NOT be familiar with the law. In fact, the prosecutor's response showed that HE wasn't familiar with the law, wrongly believing that supervised release, while part of the sentence, was somehow part of the "punishment." It was not and that was what I was trying to emphasize.

Also, I wanted to refresh the judge's mind concerning the case as I assume he sentences lots of defendants and may not remember all my details. I thought I was saving him some time by quoting extensively from the transcripts why he gave me the sentence he did.

I wasn't asking the judge for a favor; I was simply asking him to follow the law. It wasn't a question of remorse or not... that was settled at sentencing.

The simple fact was that I had satisfied all supervised release requirements and my transition back to the community was complete. There were no more sentencing objectives to be met; therefore, it is appropriate to terminate supervised release.

Supervised release is not a hardship, as I believe I mentioned in the motion. It is but a minor inconvenience to me but I also tried to make the point that it prevents me from doing good to other current and former inmates.

Again, I was not asking the judge for a favor; I was simply asking him to recognize the fact that my transition back to community life was complete, therefore, it is appropriate to terminate my supervised release. After all, 3 years of supervised release seems a little odd for a 3 month prison sentence.

Etienne Juneau said...

Hi Bill,

Was watching your videos from Perry Marshall's seminar and your quote from Henry Nouwen struck me (I cried).

Which book is it taken from?

Thanks a lot,

Etienne J.
Montreal, Quebec

Bill Bailey said...


I believe the quote has appeared in various forms in different publications (search Google for "everything is grace" "henri nouwen"

I have found two references:

1. Turn My Mourning Into Dancing (the title comes from Psalm 30:11)

(I found this reference at the bottom of this page by another blogger who referenced the same quote in response to her own tragic circumstances.... you may want to read it.)

2. It also appeared in the journal Weavings (Nov/Dec 1992 - "All is Grace").