This morning I woke up to an awful realization: My life is pretty amazing…and all Ido is take it for granted.
This awful realization of mine sprang up from a nightmare–the details of which I will never forget. In the dream, I was a man living in a prison cell. It was a typical 9×12 with a concrete block for a bed, a cheap pillow, and a thin mattress. A stone slab protruding from the wall (my “desk”). A matching cement stool from the floor. A steel sink and toilet. A large, metal door. And that’s it. My world in its entirety. Small. Simple. Clean. Empty of things.
The window on the door was covered up with black paint, so I could not see outside of my little box, and my only means of communication was through a tiny crack in the wall. The identity of the person speaking to me via the wall crack could not be confirmed–not with any real conviction–but I didn’t care, I was just happy to have someone to talk to. I was being interviewed about my life. Then a triggering question came…

“When do you get out of there?”
I paused and took a quick glance at the tiny world around me.
I didn’t have…an answer?
I didn’t know.
And, suddenly, I became very claustrophobic.

When am I getting out of here? I couldn’t remember. Days? Weeks?! YEARS?! (I felt sick.) My enclosure began shrinking in on me as I eyed the impenetrable door. I was trapped and the panic was real (I need out!). I started pounding on the wall and screaming (“HELP!!!”) Am I going to live and die in here? In this box?! Forever? No, no, no, noooo…arrgghh!…I jerked awake.
My body is covered in a cold sweat.
But at least I’m back in my normal prison bunk.
Relax, buddy. Breathe. It was just a dream.
Not a good one, but still just a dream.
Although…I do know that place. Yep. That was an isolation cell (aka The Hole). Cause too much trouble in prison and it’s what your life gets reduced to. A small area. Simple. Clean. Empty of things. It’s just a part of prison life–at least it was for me (when I was still young and reckless). But why then, familiar with it as I am, was I so panicked and afraid in the dream? The answer arrives quickly: In real life, whenever I was put in the hole, I always knew I’d get out of there…eventually. In my very bad dream though, I was trapped in an endless and empty hell (“HELP!!!”). I lost my cool in there because my release from utter solitude was entirely uncertain–and THAT was scary. But wouldn’t that be a fantastic thing for the man in the cell to wake up to? A single breath of fresh air? An ounce of freedom? Someone to smile at? Real LIFE?
It would.
(And that’s when I actually started to wake up.)
That man’s life was my nightmare, but I am currently living his ONLY dream.
Freedom.
From the overwhelming emptiness.
Of solitary confinement.
Still under the covers, I consider that MY blessings begin the minute I open my eyes–and all it takes is a few seconds of honest self-reflection to reveal a deep lack of gratitude. I may not have everything I want, but…

I don’t live in a box. I have books to read and paper to write upon.
I am loved. I have friends. I have countless modes of communication.
I can impact the world. I can make a difference in people’s lives. I am NOT living in solitude.

Truly, the isolated man in the 9×12 would find much to be grateful for were he to be given MY life. That’s quite obvious. But have the last 20 years in prison–full of hardship and loss–not taught me to appreciate the little things in life? Apparently not. Apparently not at all. Damn it. I feel a heavy sense of disappointment settling in, but it is only through this lens that I am able to recognize something about myself that I’ve been overlooking: I just might be on track to live my whole life a completely unsatisfied man. Not because I’ve never had anything. Not because I haven’t accomplished much. Not because there are no good things in my life. I’m going to die fully unsatisfied simply because I never let myself BE satisfied. I cry and complain about too many trivial things. My focus has been on what’s lacking instead of what’s…amazing. And I cannot continue down this path.
Fully awake, I see a lesson worth preserving. So I climb out of my bed (grateful that I have a decent mattress and pillow), I open my cell door (I can leave whenever I want), I walk straight to the telephones (happy to see a few guys who, just yesterday, I was 100% sick of looking at). I pick up the receiver (thankful that I have money on my phone account and a phone book full of people who would gladly press “5” to accept my call), and I start dialing my girlfriend’s number (damn, I have a girlfriend? who’s incredibly loving and supportive? even though I have 15 years left to do in here? People often ask how I met her, but I’m starting to think they don’t care “how” I met her, they probably just want to hear how MIRACLES work). She picks up after a single ring (always does).

“Hello, baby. How are you doing?” The sweet girl asks.
“I’m emotional right now.” I choke back tears.
“It’s okay. Tell me, talk to me.”
“I just woke up to an awful realization.”
“Oh, no, what happened?”
“My life is pretty amazing…and all I do….is take it for granted.”

She listens attentively and let’s me get it out.
I don’t tell her ALL the details of the dream.
I focus on the important part.
My shift in perspective.
I preserve the lesson, by sharing it with her.
A few minutes later, after our call ends, I head back to my cell.
Something is still bothering me though.

The man…in the 9×12.

He is a real person (who might even be reading this right now).
His life, by comparison, teaches me to have gratitude for mine.
I need to give him something in return.
To balance the scale.
My gratitude remains incomplete if I do not.

Every day, brother, every f*cking day.
You are NOT alone.
You are NOT forgotten.
And I owe you one…