When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare about being sent to prison. I thought that would be the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. I would wake in a start, sheets damp from my sweat, and feel the most intense sense of relief as I realized that the bars had been a dream.
I was reminded of the dream recently as I read a memoir by Neil White titled In The Sanctuary of Outcasts. White is a typical southern business man with shirts pressed into cracker-crisp submission, the requisite stories of his time in the frat house at Ole’ Miss, and the dual social safety nets of family ties and southern white privilege to catch him when he falls. Until he finally falls too hard.
Neil White was convicted of check kiting in the early 90s and sentenced to 18 months in a minimum-security prison. He was incarcerated in Carville, LA, in a facility that, oddly enough, also housed one of the last remaining “leper colonies” in the country. As he meets and befriends both patients and prisoners, and more importantly, as he privately ponders all he has lost and what he might ever have again, White undergoes a transformation, the transformation we must all undergo to become fully human. It is behind the bars of a prison — removed from his family, removed from his social status, removed from his lifelong need for approval and recognition — that Neil White begins to taste freedom for the first time.
I have recently undergone a “stripped-down-to-nothing” experience. Much like Neil White, I can’t say I enjoyed the early stages of this process. The shock of having my life changed so completely was not an easy swallow. Those days contained pain and sorrow and sadness and self-pity. I was numb, but nowhere near numb enough.
And then, things started to change. Just a little at first. The change was soft and slow and subtle. And so incredibly profound.
Any material losses became as a speck of sand to the great ocean of self-discovery into which I now daily dive. Releasing the material, in fact, was key to my transformative process. I have a fourth of what I used to have, and I’m still thinking there are some items I could give away.
Two years ago, I again dreamed I was in prison. I had the dream three times that summer. I believe I now understand the personal reasons why. I won’t delve into the specifics of that here, but suffice it to say that the bars in my dream did not represent a person or situation. They weren’t symbolic of my job, my relationship, or my financial situation. They didn’t stand for some trauma in childhood or sense of inadequacy.
The bars were the disconnect between the me who moves through time and space and the me who is actually living this life. They were the great mysterious veil between my projected self and my true nature. They were the barrier I erected between knowledge and understanding.
It is only when everything else is stripped away, when there is nothing left but you and the bars, that you can see them for what they are. And then you can remember . . . the bars are only a dream; it is the freedom that is real.