I was in prison last week. I didn't commit a crime- I was invited to speak there. I will admit it was intimidating to prepare a presentation about overcoming trials to a group of prisoners. After pondering my topic, it didn't take too long for me to realize that most of us serve time in a mental prison. I served 7 years in mine.
Think about it. Have you ever felt a loss of freedom? Have your actions been affected by prolonged effects of fear, anxiety, depression, addiction, hatred, or anger. While these emotions are not material walls they are just as dense and oppressive. They affect every aspect of our life and ultimately separate us from the life we want to be living.
After my husband and daughter were killed by a drunk driver, I was bound by anger and hatred to the man who took their lives. My body, mind, and heart were all broken and it seemed every hardship and trial I experienced could be blamed on this man. I wanted to ensure that he would experience misery for what he did, even though my spirit felt heavy and weighed down by the desire to crush him, I still felt justified because of what he had done to me. While my mind was so consumed with these negative emotions, I experienced very little happiness or joy. The reason is that these negative emotions cannot exist in our minds at the same time that the positive emotions do. One will always replace the other.
Eventually my feelings toward this man became very apathetic. I found myself steering away from anything that would remind me of him. I was speaking regularly on overcoming trials and finding happiness but in reality I was still in the process of really doing it myself. I didn't necessarily want this man to be destroyed, but I definitely didn't want him to be happy. I would say things like, "I forgive him, but I don't want anything to do with him." Silently I would still have moments of intense hatred toward him because of moments that I was missing in my life because of him.
It wasn't until 2010, seven years later, that my life really started to change. I was writing a paper for a college class, and I thought I would write about the experience of the crash and losing my husband and daughter. I decided that I would try to make contact with the man who took their lives to get his perspective, and I thought for sure this would get me an "A" on the paper. I know now that I should never have been able to gain access to interview this man. In Idaho, victims should never be allowed to visit offenders. Its protocol and helps maintain the safety of both. I was somehow approved and gained access to this man who I viewed as my enemy.
The day I was scheduled to meet with him, I remember having a panic attack on the way to the prison. I kept thinking, "You are going to meet the man who killed your family". Thankfully I was able to talk to a friend who helped calm me and he said something that changed everything. "Don't think of him as the man who killed your family, think of him as a friend." It worked. I changed my thoughts of who he was and I was able to visit him.
It was an amazing experience. Thanks to my new view of "my friend", I was able to listen to what he said. He was in the depths of mental misery because of what he knew he had done and the fatal consequences of it. His apologies were unceasing and I remembered the heartfelt words he had said at his sentencing years before. Here in front of me was a good man who made a bad decision. I stopped seeing him defined solely on what he had done to me, but I also saw him as a child of God, a brother, a fellow human being very much in need of a friend. Seeing him differently not only transformed him but it transformed me.
We sentence ourselves to the mental prisons we build and only we have the power and ability to release ourselves. Every mental prison is as unique as the individual who creates it. The escape is finding what those walls are made of and removing each brick one by one. If you find yourself in the confines of a mental prison, remember this quote by Wayne Dyer, "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."