"Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom" —Victor Frankl
I was standing on the second tier of hell in the infamous, "La Ocho" jail in Tijuana, Mexico. On the tier above me, the naked men and women in the psych ward were screaming, trying to hide, as they were being hosed down with cold water. The water, mixed with filth and urine, rained off the ledge, creating a waterfall. In the summer heat, this created more humidity and stench. I stood next to a priest celebrating mass on a small card table. As the priest lifted the bread and wine, I saw a cold ice cream sundae being passed through the bars to a wealthy prisoner. Despite a thick curtain decorating this first tier cell, I could still see the flicker of his television. If you had money or connections, you could arrange for a better jail cell.
The poorest prisoners relied on outside charities for food. Each day I brought buckets of bean and rice burritos packed at the Casa de Los Pobres. Some jail cells were dark and over-crowded. All I could see were hands reaching beyond the bars, struggling to find food. It was horrifying. When I left the jail each day, I struggled to shake off the sights, sounds, and smells.
One prisoner greeted me warmly during each visit. One day, he reached through the bars and gave me a friendship bracelet made of torn rags. I wore the bracelet until it fell off. I still have a picture of us together. It reminds me of this moment of connection and kindness. In this picture we are shaking hands through the bars. Despite the horrific jail, he has a serene look on his face. How was it possible for him to extend kindness amid these conditions? At this point in my life, despite my exterior freedom, self doubt kept me shackled and small.
Many people are trapped by interior prisons. Some people think that they aren't good enough or that their contributions don't matter. Many people get caught in a range of addictive behaviors or destructive habits. Change is hard. It is easier to decorate our inner jail cells and put up a curtain trying to hide our condition from others.
Reveal yourself to friends and mentors. Describe your situation and ask for help. Let trusted people see into your jail cell. If you feel alone, keep reaching out and trust that you will find people that can help you.
Today, while staring at the photograph from La Ocho, I noticed a detail that I had never seen. In the corner of photo, barely visible, there is a poster with these words: “por quien se vive?” or, “who do you live for?” It is a profound question that calls us to look beyond ourselves. If we focus on being generative for others, we can walk away from our decorated cells. Remember, you don't have to do this alone. Reach out to the hands that are reaching toward you.