Dear Friends: Each one of us has been evicted from the nice, cozy home of our mother’s womb. Howling at the shock of it, we plunged naked into the winds of change. A newborn who isn’t howling is cause for concern; so rightfully, we voiced our complaints, strangers in a strange land. And over the years, sometimes more, sometimes less, we still feel the sting of it – free-market swindles, red-tape regulations, wage theft, job theft – we feel the sting on the left and the right.
To be trapped in a too-small space is stifling. To be tossed out onto the side of the road is crushing. Our world is full of prisons that trap us and toss us aside – literal prisons, which the powerful use to protect their worldly privileges; and inward prisons, which all of us use to muffle the intensity of our lives.
I am my own cruelest jailer. The forces that threaten to entrap me from within are many: despair, estrangement, deception, resentment, greed, addiction. Someone needs to jail the jailer, and I can’t do it myself.
At the same time, not all confinement is stifling. Not all release is abandonment. To be embraced tightly in loving arms is to be steadied for the day. To be shoved out the door with a kiss and a sandwich is to be launched into a life worth living. Howard Thurman wrote of the “profound measure of resourcefulness in all life, a resourcefulness that is guaranteed by the underlying aliveness of life itself.” (1949) To love this underlying aliveness, to love the embrace of it, the surprise of it – this frees us from all the prisons in the world.
Hope, unity, truth, forgiveness, generosity, simplicity – this is the prison curriculum I’d teach my inner jailer if I were in charge. But I’m not. My only authority is to learn to live by the truth of who I am. I learn that truth by learning to love the life that sustains me.
Isaac Penington often employed the image of the yoke when describing submission to truth, submission to “the life.” The meaning of “yoke” here would be a harness that restrains draft animals for putting them to work. Penington said, “Mark this therefore diligently: the yoke is not one thing, and the liberty another; but one and the same. The power of God – the life everlasting, the pure light, the divine nature – is a yoke to the transgressing nature; but [that yolk is also] the ease, the pleasure, the rest, the peace, the joy, the natural center of that which is born of God.” (1661)
I can’t tell you how many emails I get every week from organizations I admire, asking me to help them “free the prisoner.” I sometimes give them token amounts of money and sometimes sign petitions, but these are cold transactions. However, if my own beloved child or my dear lover or my sainted mother were to call me from jail and beg me to get them out of there, you know I would work like crazy as long as it took to get them free. The burden of that effort for someone I love would be a relief, compared with the burden of worry.
Every prisoner is worthy of love, not just my own relations, and every enemy is worthy, too. And to make that real, “It has to be rooted in concrete experience. No amount of good feeling for people in general, no amount of simple desiring, is an adequate substitute,” said Thurman. “Obviously then, merely preaching love of one’s enemies or exhortations – however high and holy – cannot, in the last analysis, accomplish this result.”
Each one of us has particular individuals we are to love concretely, and each has particular fields we are to plow. No amount of good feeling or careful thinking will bring them to us, nor us to them. But rather, it is in submitting to “the still, meek, and humble waiting have we found . . . that which is to live, made alive, and increase in life.” (Penington, 1668) ~~~