A friend of mine got out of prison on the last day of 1997. He was thirty-seven years old and had been in prison since he was nineteen. Because he was on a 90-year sentence, he had spent his whole prison time in one old maximum-security facility in mid-Florida which has a very tough reputation.
In all those years, William (not his real name) was never encouraged to get a G.E.D. or any other education or skills training. There were precious few programs offered at his prison because all the inmates there had such long sentences, the state felt, "Why waste the money? They're never getting out of here."
When the state did release him, they let him out the gate with a short-sleeved shirt and fifty dollars. This scenario is repeated every day all over the United States. It's an embarrassment before God and a mockery of the idea that the state is giving folks like William a "second chance." How much of a chance does he have with fifty bucks and no skills or education?
But William had practiced meditation for many years while he was inside, and after improving his reading skills he studied many spiritual books. He developed a prayer life. He became a quiet, kind person. So he had no intention, when he was released, of giving all that up and turning back to crime. He had made the Big Change. Crime was no longer an option.
William hooked up with some good people doing nonprofit work in the community, and he found a place to live and work with them for awhile. He wasn't making much money, but he got room and board and began learning how to cook, bake bread, do some light carpentry, and occasionally speak to community groups about his own "before & after" story, which was very well received.
Because he had done so much spiritual practice in prison, William assumed he would have no difficulty adjusting to life outside of prison. Everyone else said, "After spending your whole adult life in a tough prison, you'll probably hit some hard challenges out here." But William would always smile and say he was just glad to be out, and nothing would be rough about life out here at all.
It was around February when the first wave of depression hit him. William had no idea what was going on. He slipped deeper and deeper into silence, shutting out the people around him just like he would have done in prison. But these people were his friends, not his jailers. They had been expecting him to hit some rough spots and they were ready to help him through them. But William did not yet know how to ask for or receive such help. He closed off and became grim. Everyone would try to talk with him, ask him questions, and he would respond in short, unfriendly grunts. And being tall and muscular and prison-hard, he could be pretty intimidating when he was feeling unfriendly.
The main thing that was going on was confusion and pride. William had no idea why he was depressed, and he was too proud to admit it. He had spent so many years fending for himself, trusting only himself, figuring everything out for himself, that he didn't know how to handle this in any other way. Several of his friends and co-workers became angry with him, taking his rejection personally. And of course, that made matters worse.
By March of '98, William was actually saying "Maybe I should just go back to prison." And he was also saying, "Every night when I go to sleep, I pray for God to let me die before I wake up. I have nothing to live for." Here's a good-looking, intelligent, healthy, thirty-eight-year-old man with a whole lifetime of freedom opening up to him, and he just wanted to be back in prison or dead. Sad and amazing, but not surprising.
Please don't think this couldn't happen to you. Life out here is not really a bowl of cherries, like you may assume when you're aching to be out of prison in the "free world." The free world is not so free. It's tough. It's confusing. It's exhausting. People are working themselves into the grave and have very little to show for it. Everybody is incredibly busy, but few people are happy with how they spend their time. William had a lot more time in prison to pray, read, meditate and relax than he did out here. He had a lot more privacy in prison, and a lot more time to himself. I'm not suggesting prison is better, I'm just urging you not to fantasize about how easy it will be when you step through the gates.
Things got worse and worse for William, and finally I had a few talks with him when it seemed that he just wasn't going to come out of this tailspin by himself. His co-workers and I had already given him plenty of pep-talks, all to no avail. The only thing that came to me to say to him was this:
"William, I want you to think very seriously about two simple questions. If you can truthfully answer 'yes' to both questions, then I know you're going to get through this. If your answers are 'no,' then I don't know what else to say to you. Here are the questions:
Does God know what you're going through?
Does God care?
Those two questions can be a self-test to see whether you are a person of faith or not. Pick out your biggest problem or obstacle in life. If you honestly believe that God knows and cares, then you are a person of faith. If you do not believe that God knows and cares, then you may have some serious problems facing you.
I know that William is truly a spiritual person, and so for him, those two questions forced an undeniable "yes" on both counts. And once he admitted to himself that he does believe God knows and cares, then he no longer felt alone and no longer felt like he was just going crazy for no purpose at all. He realized that God must be pushing him to learn something and no matter how hard it was, he felt that God would help him through it.
In William's case, what he was being pushed to learn had to do with pride and with real friendship; being able to admit that he was scared and confused, being able to accept love from the people around him; not having to be Superman. He saw a psychiatrist once, but left there saying, "If I'm going to talk about what's bothering me, I'd rather do it with friends."
We may never understand completely why William broke down so deeply after a couple months' freedom. It could probably be explained in a hundred different ways. If you think you clearly understand it, you're being foolish. It doesn't matter to understand it, as much as to face it with honesty, faith and support from friends. I'm happy to say that's what William finally did, and now he has been out for nearly two years, he has a good job and many friends.
Like all of us, he still occasionally has rough times. But he remembers the two questions. He remembers that his answers are "yes," and so he knows he's never alone or unloved. And that may be all we need to get through the rough times when nothing else seems to help.