Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Prisons without walls

Several years ago I accepted an invitation to be the co-leader of a Community Building Workshop in a minimum security prison. When I arrived at the address to which I had been directed, I was not at all sure I was at the right location. There were no walls, fences, bars on the windows, or guard towers. I commented to the chaplain who had planned the event that it seemed unusual to see a prison without any of the architecture of confinement. I will never forget his comment. He said, "The walls and fences and bars of this prison are in the minds of the inmates".

He gave that explanation in such a casual and matter-of-fact manner that he seemed to think I should have known without asking. Well, in some respects, I did know. I knew something of the psychological process by which ordinary people confine themselves. I am also aware of how people often do the kind of mental violence to themselves which, if done to them by someone else, would provoke quick and serious resistance. But it had never occurred to me that it was possible to take a large group of people who were already in trouble for not abiding by the established rules and somehow tap into that concept of mental confinement so effectively that the group would actually remain in an institution without walls, fences and bars. It put me to thinking about the people I know in the free world who are just as completely imprisoned as those inmates.

There are people who have never been convicted of a crime who are confined in prisons with no walls, or fences except for those in their own minds. Perhaps you know people like that. You may be one of them. It is likely that all of us suffer that kind of incarceration some of the time, and to some degree. There are also people who are doing a life sentence of hard time, mentally.

When we see people imprisoned by hatred, resentment, prejudice, jealousy, self-imposed ignorance, and/or any number of irrational fears (phobias), we cannot help but wonder, "Why?" From our perspective it is clear they hold the key to freedom in their own hands. When we see people locked in a room with obviously open doors, we wonder why they don''t walk out. The answer to that question is almost never as simple as it seems. A psychiatrist would say that their situation is "over determined", 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 may never untangle them without serious help.

Since we cannot see inside the minds of these people, we know very little about their prison, or how and why those invisible walls and fences were built. Even when we can look into 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.

There are many ways to deal with our negative feelings. Have you ever wished you were someone else? It happens to people who have never learned to live at peace with themselves. It happens to people whose mantra is, "I hate myself". Self-hatred is a self-inflicted wound by people who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge what has happened and respond to relatives and friends who have abused and misused them, so they unload hatred on themselves. We may be able to get away from other people, but we cannot escape from ourselves. Living with someone you hate when that someone is you can make you wish you were someone else. In his play, Orpheus Descending, Tennessee Williams has one of his characters say, "We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins for life".

There are walls and fences in the mind so common that we are all liable to become imprisoned by them unless we exercise intentional effort to stay free. Behind these conventional walls we will find prisoners of the past, prisoners of old mistakes, prisoners of problems beyond our power to fix, and prisoners of racism and other forms of ignorance. The list is endless.

Another form of personal imprisonment so subtle and common that almost anyone can be trapped by it is the daily 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". It can also happen in families when an authority figure elevates one rule to the level of the Ten Commandments while ignoring other guiding principles of living together that are of equal or greater importance.

The great musician, Tchaikovsky, was neurotic. Most of us are to some degree about something. Sigmund once opined that "neurosis seems to be a human privilege". Legend has it that Tchaikovsky's neurosis was expressed as an overpowering fear that some day, while conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, his head would fall off. The chance of his head falling off while conducting the orchestra would be infinitesimally small. But the fear of that happening was so overwhelming that for 30 years Tchaikovsky conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic with his left hand while he held his head in place with his right hand.

Most of us have neurotic fears and hang-ups, which while they are not so exotic as Tchaikovsky's are no less inhibiting to the achievement of our real potential. Have you ever wondered what you could do or be if you could be set free of the unreasonable fears, ideas, and anxieties which dominate your life and take up so much of your time and energy? Have you ever wondered what your life would be, lived with both hands? When we look at other people we tend to think, from a superficial observation, that they have their lives in manageable units. Little wonder that so many wish they were someone else!

Our limitations are usually lines we have drawn. Most of us have the key to our private jail house door. If you cannot find your key, there are people who can help you with a "get out of jail free" card. Some 2000 years ago an old friend of ours said that God had sent him into the world to "heal the broken-hearted, preach deliverance to the captive, and set at liberty those who are bruised..." (Luke 4:18). He has helped lots of people. Next time you find yourself languishing in one of those prisons without walls ask him to pardon you.