by Steve Marshall
First, let me stress that the title is a joke. I couldn’t resist the temptation to parody the 1964 classic film, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” In truth, I love prison about as much as I love the bomb.
Actually, this is about how I arrived at the unexpected realization that I accept being a prisoner and embrace the fact that I am where I need to be. This is the story of how I arrived at this surprising crossroads.
When I was arrested on April 15, 2009, it was a sudden and immediate wake-up call; a punch in the gut that informed me that my life had gone seriously off the rails. Like many people in a similar situation, I became painfully aware ‘that I had lost sight of my moral compass ‘ and that my spiritual cup was bone dry. I tried to address the problem by joining a traditional Christian church. But with each’ passing Sunday, I realized that, for me, this was not a comfortable fit.
You see I am, by definition, an atheist. Most Judeo-Christian theology strikes me as magical thinking. My life is informed by science, logic, provable fact and natural law. Having said that, I must add that I have the greatest respect for the beliefs of others. Whatever gets us through the circuitous maze that we call life and provides us with strength, wisdom, comfort and a sense of direction is ‘aces in my book. Let’s face it – no one has the facts. All we have is what we believe to be true. In that sense, each of us has his or her own personal truth.
So where does an atheist go for spiritual enlightenment? In my case, the answer lay with the Unitarian-Universalist Church. You see, the U-Us have no dogma of their own. In fact, they offer classes in the world’s religions, urging us to seek what makes sense to us. Take something from Christianity, ‘something else from Buddhism, add a pinch of Judaism or a dash of Hinduism and let simmer. It is, in effect, “Build Your Own Theology.” The principle goal and purpose of Unitarian-Universalism is to lead us in the direction of becoming better people. I knew after attending my first service that I had finally found a spiritual home.
But when t came to be locked up in a’ remote Southern prison, I discovered that they offered no Unitarian-Universalist services. In fact, they had never heard of either faith (the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in the 1960s), even though both have existed for hundreds of years. So what was I to do? How was I to continue this spiritual journey?
Happily, I found more than one person in my circle of remaining friends who were Unitarian-Universalists and were willing to download the sermons of U-U ministers from a number of different churches and mail them to me. I keep them in their own envelope and withdraw one each Sunday to read and digest. I have come to think of myself as “A Congregation of One.” Someone very close to me (a U-U, of course) has even started a blog with that as a title, posting excerpts from the letters that I write after reading each sermon.
Most of the sermons provide interesting and engaging food for thought. But occasionally I’ll come upon one that is a real life changer. Such was the case on Sunday, January 12, 2013 when I read a sermon titled “Want What You Have.” My first reaction upon seeing that title was that I was probably not going to connect with this sermon’s message. After all, what I have is three and a half more years of living in a federal prison. Who could possibly want that? Well, never judge a book by its cover nor a sermon by its title.
This particular sermon was based on the works of Rev. Forrest Church, the former minister of All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church in New York and a religious scholar of some renown.
As I began to read, I was informed that “Rev. Church had written an essay which bore the title “Want What You Have” when he was in the end stages of his life, suffering from terminal cancer. I was taken aback with this news as I stopped reading to consider how anyone could advance such an idea – want what you have – when what he had was a virulent disease that was killing him. I read on and soon realized that I was myopic in my grasp of Rev. Church’s message. His thesis challenged me to look at the bigger picture and see that what I had was more than just a life in prison. What I had, in fact, was an unparallel opportunity to learn and grow.
When my life deteriorated to the point of leading me to become a convicted felon for the first and only time at the advanced age of 65; the one thing that became blindingly clear was that I was in serious need of a mid-course correction. My problem was so serious that it would require much more than a simple fix. I needed to have my entire life reset.
In order to achieve a reset, I needed to go back to square one; to lose my home, my family, all of my possessions; my freedom itself.
I must confess to the fact that I had become a master of the dubious art of distracting myself from any meaningful contemplation that might result in my becoming a better human being. I had my giant screen television, an endless stream of movies and my beloved iPhone, which ensured that I would never again have to endure another nanosecond of boredom. I had the Internet to take me anywhere I wanted to go, including the most degrading and debasing places possible. All of these things conspired to sap away my basic humanity. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone.
The biggest loss, of course, was my marriage and the love and esteem of people who meant everything to me. Some of those relationships survived; others did not. Some of the people whom I loved to the depths of my soul are lost to me forever. But a reset can’t always be pretty. It can come with a very high price tag. It doesn’t happen in a day, a week” a month or even a year. It takes time, patience, attention and a fierce desire to be a better person than I have ever been. I finally have the time and motivation to focus laser-like on that goal. The seeds ‘for this reset were sown the moment I first stepped into the U-U church while I was still under house arrest. The work has continued at a steady pace ever since.
I have almost reached the midpoint in the six and a half years that I must spend in federal custody. I know to a certainty that I am already a better man than I was on the morning of April 15, 2009. But I still have some distance to travel before I will be who I want to be – the man I always thought I was. That’s who I want to become.
I am a work in progress.
I am grateful for the time, energy and motive to become that man. That is the immutable gift that has been given to me.
So. Do I want what I have?