Early in my incarceration I came across this quote by Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” The more I thought about this statement, the more I realized how true it is. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was at the time, but his words sparked my lifelong interest and desire to learn about the teachings of other great philosophers. In many respects, to learn its numerous variations is to learn about yourself and those around you.
The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. Such an undeniable truth. Many years ago I believed that my problems in life were bigger than I could handle, and as a result they became so. For most of my teens and part of my early adult life, I dwelled on the negatives. I seldom noticed the beautiful or the good or that which gives you inspiration. I saw the clouds on mostly sunny days, saw what was missing in a half-empty glass, and found the cold on Spring afternoons. The first half of my life I was often unhappy, frustrated, and angry and didn’t understand why.
The second half of my life has been spent incarcerated. Yet, I am the happiest I have ever been. This may sound hard to believe, but I tell you it’s true. I now have a strong relationship with my family, something I was too self-centered to notice let alone deserve when I was first incarcerated. I see the future as immensely positive and exciting. I literally spend every day of my life pursuing projects that are meaningful to me and my future.
I constantly educate myself. I wanted to learn about the world’s major religions, so I studied them. I wanted to improve my memory because I was terribly absent-minded and so I did. I taught myself the mnemonic techniques that the world’s best use in competition and daily life, and now I member everything I tell myself I will remember. I wanted to understand global politics and the interplay between nations, so I observed and learned. I was curious about Russian history and politics, so I studied and learned. I love learning about people. Every day I seize the moment whenever it presents itself. I mentor guys that need direction and encouragement in their lives and I love it. It’s especially rewarding when I see positive change take root in their lives. I tell this to everyone that will listen to me: how we choose to see the world has everything to do with how we see the world. When we seek happiness and beauty, we find happiness and beauty. When we hate, hate finds us. It’s that simple. I don’t feel that my life is on hold; quite the opposite. I’m living my life every day.
Incarceration is what you make of it. I live in a world of angry men, of human beings stuck in their negative thoughts, addictions and self-pity. They complain about the staff, about the food, about the selection at commissary. They whine about recreation or lament their boredom. They choose to live in a hell that they have created in their minds. By actively looking for the negatives they successfully find them.
Like incarceration, life is what you make of it. If you choose to see the negatives in your spouse or significant other, you will find them. If you come home from a long day at work and all you choose to see are the things you dislike, then you will be mad and you will be miserable. Tell yourself you are unhappy and it becomes true. This is my experience in life. When I’m outside I see the birds and the beauty of the sky. I see sunsets with renewed awe every time.
Lao Tzu once said: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future.” And, Jesus once said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” They, just like Marcus Aurelius and every great sage throughout history, understood this simple truth about life, that life is what we choose it to be.
Years ago I made the decision to let go of anger and negativity. I forgave everyone I ever felt had hurt me. It has been liberating, and now I see the good things in life and in others. And you know what? It’s a wonderful feeling. You can achieve the same things, you only need to believe that you will. Won’t you take that first step? Come journey with me.