Overcoming Life’s Prisons

October 20, 2012

by Maria Fontaine

When it comes to suffering of any kind, the questions that are usually uppermost in our minds are, “Will it end? How do I stop it? How can I get out of this time of suffering and back to doing something useful or good?”

But there are other options if we look at what we are facing from a different perspective. We can say, “How can I find the ‘good’ in this? What can I gain from this suffering or loss? How can this be turned into a tool to help me move forward in some way?”

Circumstances like loss, pain, sickness, grief, loneliness, persecution, etc., aren’t what determine the outcome of a situation; how you choose to face what you’re up against is what determines the outcome.

Succeeding isn’t just escaping life’s troubles. It is learning to use those difficulties to benefit yourself and others. Faith and the Lord’s love for us are an integral part of our lives as Christians, but we have to choose to use what He’s provided us with. As creatures of free choice, we each have to determine how we will respond to such difficulties, whether we will fight to rise above the challenges and make a difference in spite of (and even because of) our difficulties, or if we will succumb to them and become a victim of our circumstances.

As the saying goes, the tragedy is not when men try and fail. The tragedy is when they never try at all.

I came across a story by the daughter of a woman whose faith in spite of irreversible loss and suffering had changed lives and made a difference for many others. Her mother had been vibrant and active and accomplished in many areas, when in her early thirties she was incapacitated by a spinal tumor that left much of her body paralyzed.

The daughter told the story of how the tumor had crushed her mother’s body, but not her spirit. The mother made a conscious hard decision to turn every setback into a new opportunity. She chose to make this painful loss of so much that had been precious to her into a tool for good.

She began a foundation to help people with disabilities accomplish more. She used her disability as a chance to learn how to teach special education, and she did so even more effectively because she intimately understood their needs. She learned skills in order to teach them to others who would need them. She even teamed up with her daughter when she was grown, to help teach inmates in the correctional facilities that her daughter worked in. The inmates would crowd around her, eager to learn whatever she would teach them. Her determination stirred hope in them.

Whatever came into her life, she embraced it and found a way to use it constructively. Her undaunted enthusiasm for life and her faith, lived out daily, created a powerful drive in her daughter’s life as well.

As the mother grew older and was unable to go to the prisons, she continued to teach and counsel the inmates through correspondence. One letter that the mother wrote to a prisoner seemed to summarize to me how Jesus wants us to look at life and the privilege we have to be here, facing both the joys and wonders as well as our personal “prisons” of suffering and struggles at times.

The letter read:

Dear Waymon,

I want you to know that I have been thinking about you often since receiving your letter. You mentioned how difficult it is to be locked behind bars, and my heart goes out to you. But when you said that I couldn't imagine what it is like to be in prison, I felt impelled to tell you that you are mistaken.

There are different kinds of freedom, Waymon, different kinds of prisons.

Sometimes, our prisons are self-imposed.

When, at the age of thirty-one, I awoke one day to find that I was completely paralyzed, I felt trapped—overwhelmed by a sense of being imprisoned in a body that would no longer allow me to run through a meadow or dance or carry my child in my arms.

For many days I lay there, struggling to come to terms with my infirmity, trying not to succumb to self-pity. I asked myself whether, in fact, life was worth living under such conditions, whether it might not be better to die.

I thought about this concept of imprisonment, because it seemed to me that I had lost everything in life that mattered. I was near despair.

But then, one day it occurred to me that, in fact, there were still some options open to me and that I had the freedom to choose among them. Would I smile when I saw my children again or would I weep? Would I rail against God—or would I ask Him to strengthen my faith?

In other words, what would I do with the free will He had given me—and which was still mine?

I made a decision to strive, as long as I was alive, to live as fully as I could, to seek to turn my seemingly negative experiences into positive experiences, to look for ways to transcend my physical limitations by expanding my mental and spiritual boundaries. I could choose to be a positive role model for my children, or I could wither and die, emotionally as well as physically.

There are many kinds of freedom, Waymon. When we lose one kind of freedom, we simply must look for another.

You and I are blessed with the freedom to choose among good books, which ones we’ll read, which ones we’ll set aside.

You can look at your bars, or you can look through them. You can be a role model for younger inmates, or you can mix with the troublemakers. You can love God and seek to know Him, or you can turn your back on Him.

To some extent, Waymon, we are in this thing together.[1]

[1] Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Heather McNamara, Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul: 101 Inspirational Stories of Overcoming Life's Challenges (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Heath Communications, 1999), 13–15.