Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Personal Prisons Without Walls

Last week I wrote about visiting prisons without walls.When I expressed my surprise at the absence of walls, fences, barred windows and guard towers, one of the officials said : "The walls and fences and barred windows at this prison are in the minds of the inmates". That explanation was given so casually and matter-of-factly that he seemed to think I should have known without asking. The truth of the matter is that in one respect I did know. I knew something of the psychological process by which some people confine themselves to a miserable sort of unfulfilling mediocrity. I was aware of how people often do the kind of mental violence to themselves which, if done to them by someone else, would cause quick and serious resistance. But it had never occurred to me that there was a way in civilized society to create such a universal mind set in a large group of people who were already in trouble for not abiding by the rules. It surprised me, but it put me to thinking about the people I know in the free would who were just as completely imprisoned as those inmates.


I know people who have never been convicted of a crime who are confined in prisons with no walls or fences except in their own minds. Perhaps you know people like that . You may be one of them. Perhaps all of us suffer that kind of incarceration, some, some of the time and to some degree. But, there are people who are doing a life sentence of hard time, mentally. There are some in whose lives this condition is so serious that it is like being on death row.


When we see people who are imprisoned by hatred, resentment, prejudice, jealousy, self-imposed ignorance and/or 49 kinds of irrational fears (phobias) we cannot help but wonder "why?" It is clear in our view of reality that they have the key to their freedom in their own hands. We see them as people locked in a room with open doors. How did they get in and why can they not get out? The answer to that question is almost never as simple as it seems. A psychiatrist would say that their situation is "overdetermined", i.e. determined by multiple factors, many of which lie so far beneath the surface of consciousness and are so tangled that the mental prisoner could never untangle them without serious help.


Since we cannot see inside the minds of other people, we know very little about their prison, or how or why those invisible walls and fences were built. Even when we can look in their eyes and see the chains on their souls, or listen to their voices and hear the echoing sounds of a dungeon, we still do not know what happened or why. It is therefore prudent to be slow to judge, if we judge at all, because we do not know and cannot understand. Even professionals proceed with care. Most of us know a family member or friends who are doing hard time in a prison without fences or walls.


There are also walls and fences of the mind so common that we are all liable to become imprisoned by them unless we are intentional in our efforts to stay free. These familiar walls and fences create prisoners of the past, prisoners of old mistakes which cannot be changed. There are people who are prisoners of problems beyond their power to fix. There are prisoners of racism and other forms of ignorance. There are so many walls and fences behind which we can become imprisoned! Anyone, upon reflection, can come up with a long list.


As we move deeper into this new year, let me warn you of a kind of imprisonment that is so subtle and common that almost anyone can be caught in it. We are daily in danger of becoming prisoners of the unimportant. Henry Knox Sherrill once observed: "The real trouble with the church is that we have so many good people with great convictions about little things. They slow us down". This can happen in any field of human work and thought: politics, business, education, etc... It certainly happens in the field of religion. Someone recently said that the church is like a swimming pool - "most of the noise comes from the shallow end". Having spent 60 years of my life practicing my faith as a professional hired hand for the church, I tend to agree with that observation.


We all have our personal prisons and hang ups. The great musician, Tchaikovsky, was a neurotic. Most of us are, about something. Before you criticize Tchaikovsky, you might ask yourself what you are doing with your neurosis. Tchaikovsky’s neurosis expressed itself in the form of an overpowering fear that someday, while conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, his head would fall off. That seems to be such an unreasonable fear! The chance of that sort of thing happening to a person is infinitesimally small. But, are not most all of our neurotic fears unreasonable? So overpowering was this fear to Tchaikovsky, that for 30 years he conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic with his left hand, while he held his head on with his right hand. One wonders what this great man might have been able to do, had he been able to conduct with both hands. Most of us have neurotic fears and hangups, which while they are not so exotic, are no less inhibiting to the achievement of our real potential. Have you ever wondered what you might do or be if you could let go and use your whole self for what you were placed here to do?!


Our limitations are lines we have drawn. Most of us have the key to our jail house door. If you can’t find your key, come by and I will issue you a "Get out of jail card" for free.