Love Versus Prison Door of Self
Brave conquerors! For so you are
Who war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires.
WE OF today recognize the great English playwright’s genius, but what was taken for wisdom in his day we’ve found to be false in ours.
We know now that war in any form has never solved a human problem. We know that to declare a state of war between us and our desires does not eradicate those desires, but rather intensifies them in proportion as our war-like wills appear victorious and strong.
When I came out of the dungeon and had again resumed my routine duties, I was in possession of an idea that had worked a seeming miracle in my behalf. But while I had a recognition of this idea, I did not have the sense of illumination, the feeling of ecstasy that had been born to me as a result of it there. Too, although I realized the idea to be a medium through which I could contact creative power, I didn’t know how to go about applying the medium to my problems now.
These problems were many and of life-long duration. They began immediately to present themselves to me for consideration the same day I had my release from punishment; for that day there was established in me an intense desire for a new deal in livingness.
Therefore, I sat down one evening to list my mental, moral and physical assets and liabilities. I discovered that I had shelter, food and clothing, such as they were. I was able to read, write and cipher a little. Against these things the list of my liabilities ran into interminable lengths.
The problem appeared simple under such circumstances. I would simply start from scratch, and declare war on my physical ill health, replace my negative attitude with a positive attitude, substitute optimism for pessimism, and presto, all would be hunky-dory.
The thoughtful reader, however, will see that I had set a mighty big order for myself. In fact, what I desired to accomplish meant a complete right about-face from all the destructive habits I had acquired and nurtured through the years. My intention was to go to war against them and slay them all in one fell blow with the rapier of my will. My intentions were excellent; but I hadn’t reckoned on the strength of the enemy. My effort, though heroic, was short lived and ended in dismal and mind-tormenting failure.
The more I tried to war against my habits, the more persistently they pressed their claims upon me. I grew melancholy under the strain. A sense of weakness and hopelessness took hold of me, which defied constructive thinking, which defied thinking of any kind, except thoughts of impotence and misery.
The desire for the things I had lived became more and more intense, until reason warned me that a compromise would have to be made, and compromise was the first step to failure. From it the plunge back down would be swift and certain.
But the worst of all, my health instead of improving under the ordeal, took an opposite turn. I soon learned that will-power was one thing, and that to use it constructively against life-long habits was another.
It seemed that all the legions of hell had turned out to concentrate their fire upon me alone. If I decided to miss a meal out of regard for my health, that particular meal would be certain to contain seldom-served items that I especially liked. Every time I picked up a magazine or newspaper, I would be sure to find some brilliant, logical attack upon the virtues I had set before me. Things occurred that I had never known to occur before to test my resolve. For instance, I had been an inveterate user of profanity. And being profane, I had not noticed it being used by others so much. But no sooner had I resolved to stop its use, I began to notice that every one seemed to use it. Books that contained it were thrust in my way. An essay by a popular author on the use of profanity was given to me. The author argued that those who did not curse had no strength of character. Men who couldn’t say damn once in awhile had lost all claim to masculinity. They were unpardonable sissies; and he clinched his argument with a long list of leaders in American history, including the father of his country, who had cursed their way to fame and victory over insurmountable odds. Profanity was a vigorous mode of expression that fitted perfectly into all occasions requiring force and vigor.
I had had a habit of chewing tobacco, which, for me in prison, had been an expensive one to gratify. To obtain chewing tobacco had been a constant struggle. But now that I had resolved to give the habit up, the weed was forced upon me from all manner of sources without one single effort on my part to acquire it.
My strongest mental habit had been intolerance of other persons’ opinions, which had, all my life, kept me in hot water, fights and squabbles. Of course, this habit headed my list. I determined I would look at the other fellow’s viewpoint and respect it even if I couldn’t agree with it. I would refuse to argue with any one, taking the stand that fools argued and wise men discussed. But again this good intention was easier resolved than carried out. It seemed that those with whom I came in contact would be pacified with nothing short of hot words. And the more I tried to force my resolution by sheer will power the more easily irritated I seemed to become.
I had always thought I possessed courage. I had no fear of physical pain. I had been clubbed by policemen into states of insensibility. I had faced death many times while pulling off burglaries; I would fight any man at the drop of a hat. Then one day, after I had made my resolution to be broad and tolerant, a fellow told me I was yellow; that I didn’t know what courage was. I was on my feet in an instant. But I steeled myself, gulped down the old impulse to do battle, and listened while he brutally continued his accusation.
“I’ll tell you what courage is,” he said. “You’ve never known what the word meant. Everybody in this joint knows you’ve always been hard-boiled. You’ve preached tooth and fang sermons around here for years. Now you’ve decided you were all wet and wrong. You’ve gone wishy-washy. All right, if you’ve got courage you’ll go up on the chapel platform the next day we have open forum and tell all your old friends all about it. Preach us a sermon about your grand and glorious reformation. That’ll take the kind of courage you ain’t got.”
Strangely enough I hadn’t thought of that particular kind of courage before. But now I realized that bullets and blackjacks were easier to face than the ridicule of one’s cynical fellows en masse. As I pondered on such a predicament, I could visualize an audience of sneering faces; I could hear their cat-calls and boos; their hisses, and their innuendoes of turn-tail, yaller-cur, long-tailed rat, and a hundred other savage aspersions.
I didn’t have the courage to face a thing of this kind, but I forced my will to accept the challenge. I made a prepared talk and committed it to memory. Then I sent my name and desire to the open forum director. I lived a million years of emotional agony between that day and the day I was billed to speak. When the day finally came I was almost a complete invalid. As I sat on the platform trying to pretend poise as the lines filed into the auditorium, the pit of my stomach was churning like a ball of red-hot vacuum without a mooring. As I was being introduced, a wave of nausea swept over me and I began to tremble from head to feet. As I rose, I was met with a roar of ridicule; tide after tide of it broke over me as I stood there waiting for it to subside. I felt as though I were losing consciousness. Then came a dead hush, in which I imagined one might hear a feather fall above the mad pumping of my heart. I started out to speak; my lips quivered open, but not a syllable issued forth. If ever self-styled hero made an inglorious retreat that hero was me. I slunk from the auditorium amid the wildest surge of abuse I’ve ever heard before or since. Right there and then I decided to scuttle all my fine resolutions. But Providence once more came to my rescue, this time in a wholly different manner.
I was to occupy that same platform many times after this frightful fizzle. I was to debate my newfound philosophy of behavior with some of the most brilliant forum minds. I was to hear cheers and applause, where I had once heard only sneers and guffaws. But I didn’t achieve these things by the war process against my habits and weaknesses. I achieved them not by trying to suppress old habits, but by using life’s creative law to create new habits that transcended the old. To war against a thing is to hate that thing. To sublimate a condition is to employ the medium of love. The one compresses the condition into a more intensified circumference, the other expands it until it has no circumference left.
It so happened, and how fortunate it was for me, that just after I reached this crisis, I was transferred to a different cell! The man with whom I was to share this latter cell was a life-termer well along in years.
His name was Dad Trueblood, but he was often referred to as The Old Stir Bug. Ordinarily this name was applied in an uncharitable sense to those prisoners who had attracted it through odd or queer quirks in their mental characters. But in the case of Dad Trueblood it was untouched by the critical or opprobrious. For this old fellow was the most beloved man who had ever done time in this particular prison. He was loved by both prisoners and officials alike, a combination rarely found behind stone walls.
Dad was one of those exceptional persons the most chary could trust; one of those singular individuals who, without uttering a word, broke down the strongest restraint in others and set them to blabbing their troubles in his ear as naively as a child goes running with its troubles to its mother. He was one of those occasional men who could win another’s confidence without effort, and with just as little effort keep that confidence strictly inviolable.
Had Dad wished to turn informer, he could have sent scores of his confidants to longer prison terms, and many to the electric chair. But Dad was not an informer, and although this prison, like all other prisons, was managed after the stool-pigeon system, no official ever thought of offending Dad’s sensibilities by offering him special privilege in return for tainted favors.
The odd twist that gave Dad the name Stir Bug occurred because he had refused a pardon after having served twenty-seven years. His reason for such an unheard-of act was strange and yet wholly consistent with his character. When the warden asked him why he preferred to remain voluntarily in prison, he said that he was getting old; that he no longer had any friends or relatives on the outside; and that he thought he could be of more service in prison than out.
“But don’t you want your freedom?” the warden had asked incredulously.
“I’m always free,” the old lifer had replied. “It doesn’t make any difference where you are on the face of the earth, warden. If your thoughts are free you’re free. And there’s no one can imprison your thoughts but yourself.”
And so Dad Trueblood had been permitted the privilege of remaining a number instead of going out and once more becoming a name.
When I moved my belongings into his cell he was lying on his bunk. He welcomed me casually in a friendly manner. He knew, of course, of my reputation as a bad actor. There were few words passed between us until we had been locked in for the evening. Then I asked him if he had seen my fade-away up in the chapel. Yes, he had been there that day. He thought most any one else would have done likewise under similar circumstances. But he asked no curious questions about it.
Finally, I related my experience in the dungeon; and of my desires after coming out; of my terrific will-power battle to overcome my old habits; of my pitiful failure to do anything in that direction. “But after that chapel deal,” I finished, “I got wise to myself in a jiffy.”
“How do you mean?” he asked in an offhand way.
“I mean this virtue stuff is all the bunk,” I said. “Then what does that make the other stuff? The stuff you’ve been living before?”
“There are some pretty wise men who have taken the gold out of the Golden Rule, and have made that rule look pretty small, at least on paper,” I replied evasively.
“That doesn’t seem important, son, in your case,” Dad said. “You’ve been following another rule. The important thing is, what has it got you? Critics and logicians deal with the trees in a forest, without ever seeing the forest itself. That’s what you should be looking at now—not the too logical details, not what the other fellow has done with your old philosophy, but what you have done with it. If you’re satisfied with the results, then your rule has worked out, if not, then the sensible thing to do is to stick to your guns and try another way.”
“But I’ve tried that and failed,” I said hopelessly. “No, you haven’t,” he said, “you’ve just gone at it wrong. For instance, if you wanted to become a cannibal right quick, where before you’d only been a moderate eater of meat, why just force yourself to break off with meat by using your will and nothing else. No, son, the easiest and safest way to rid yourself of many bad habits is to recondition yourself to one good habit. Once you have it established, the others will have disappeared without much strain.”
What he did was to show me how to apply the idea I had discovered in solitary confinement, or rather the idea that had been discovered for me, and turned to my account in spite of me.
First I was to forget all about my notion of going to war with my habits. I was just to assume that nothing had happened to me; that my attitude was the same as it had always been; that I was not to make any attempt to force a change in my custom of living; but that whenever and wherever I could do it without strain or pressure, to do something constructively creative; a quiet thought, an encouraging word to some one at the right time, a stimulating hint to another, a constructive action, either selfish or unselfish.
I was to read, as I had always read, books that appealed to the negative side of my life. But as I read I was to try to build in something positive between the lines, whenever I could appear to do it without too much labor.
“Make it a game, son,” he said, “and not a task. Let it be a challenge but not a command.”
Guided safely by the unerring knowledge Dad had of sublimation, I entered into the spirit of the game and found it not only profitable but pleasurable. It was accepted as a novelty, a plaything, something with which to while away the time; and the joy of which depended upon the game itself, and not upon the results to be accomplished.
During the day at my machine I made a game of sewing garments. Each one I finished had in it an effort to make it better than its predecessor. This part of the game alone relieved me entirely of the burden my labors had always had for me before. As I continued to play it, I soon found it becoming a fascinating habit. Time that had always dragged heavily with each begrudging stitch, now flew by on wings of tirelessness. I won privileges on my workmanship, and many compliments from the superintendent of the shop. But the surprising thing about it all was that I not only made better garments, but I was able to complete my task in much less time than when I had been fighting the sewing machine every minute and turning out slipshod material; where I had been constantly jerking at my cloth and breaking my thread, thus wasting time rethreading my needle, I now worked more smoothly and consequently with little lost motion. One of my best games was to see how many completed garments I could make without an accidental breaking of my thread. On several occasions I finished the whole task, twelve garments, without a mishap.
This game was taken up by those around me, and eventually spread over the entire shop. The superintendent was amazed at the results. He made it a competitive game and offered prizes for the winners. Not only were the garments made better; but there was a great saving accomplished by eliminating wastage, garments too hastily thrown together that later had to be discarded and new ones made to replace them.
And all the while I would be working away at my task, I also played a game with my thoughts. I would analyze them as they drifted through my mind. I would label each as it came along. If it was destructive, I would counter with a constructive one deliberately created for the purpose, and vice versa. As I continued to play, I soon became conscious of a subtle but definite drawing away of the destructive thoughts. The constructive ones came more and more unbidden, until finally I was aware that whole sequences of them would pass through my mind without being broken by one negation. Too, I found it becoming increasingly repugnant to deliberately create a destructive thought to carry out my game of counteraction.
Then when my task had been completed, I hatched up another game. I called it the game of constructive deeds. Each day I tried to increase the number of little unobtrusive things I could do for my fellows. I would hold loving thoughts toward men who had always been my avowed enemies. Many of them I had had bloody encounters with and hadn’t spoken to since. Without fitting any other action to these thoughts, I watched and waited, and in every case was rewarded by seeing the iceberg melt that had stood between us, and it wasn’t long until I had no enemies left.
This game by itself did something psychic to me. I didn’t know what it was at the time. But it was an expanding something that drew men closer to me, even while I drew farther away from the life or the type of livingness they stood for. I didn’t know why men distrusted the pious and self-righteous sort of comradeship and fellowship; nor exactly what the difference was between that sort and the sort I was expressing; but I knew there was a difference because the results were different. What that difference was didn’t seem to matter. I was becoming more and more result-conscious, and this in itself was an excellent sign.
And then at night in my cell I would take up a book that I had always looked upon as my Bible. It was Schopenhauer’s Studies In Pessimism. With this book I now made another fascinating game. I went through it thought for thought, translating it in long hand on pieces of wrapping paper. My translation of the title was Studies In Positiveness. For each negative thought given by the author, I wrote down its best positive opposite.
Nor did one of the author’s negations defy translation; indeed I invariably found many positive thoughts in one of his negative ones, from which I would choose the strongest. Sometimes it took me an entire evening to get over one page; other times I would do as many as five pages. Only once did I ask Dad to help me, and then he shook his wise old head.
“Solitaire is a one man game,” he said, “and you’re doing fine. Keep right after it ’till you win on your own efforts.”
That enormous bundle of manuscript was destroyed. I’ve often wished I had preserved it. There was a certain sentiment attached to it, I suppose. It was something tangible that stood for something much greater, though intangible, the beginning of a slow but steady bulge upward. But after all, though the manuscript was destroyed, its effect on me is still alive and will remain so until the end of my days. The effects of constructive building are eternal: destructive building leads to limitation and death. But of all my early games with the implements of life, I believe this one, in its cumulative results, had the greatest influence for good.
The translating of this book gave me an intense interest in the positive side of life. It led me smoothly into an examination of the Old and New Scriptures, and of other literature that stressed the positive along with the negative in human behavior.
However, in this prison at that time, true positive literature was a scarce article. One day I picked up a magazine of the kind that had been nearly worn out from much reading and had been discarded by its last reader. With great enthusiasm, I went through it from cover to cover. When I had finished I decided I would have a friend subscribe for it in my name and number.
The subscription was entered and I waited eagerly for my first copy. I waited several weeks. Then I had my friend write the publisher to find out about the delay. A reply informed me that the magazine, along with other printed matter from the same publisher, had been coming to me regularly. A little private investigation turned up the information that our chaplain, who was also our literary censor, had disapproved of the reading material presented through this publishing house.
My first impulse was to fly into a good old-fashioned fit of rebellion and write the chaplain a vituperative note of denunciation. In fact I did talk to Dad in no uncertain terms as to what I thought of a chaplain who would permit every deadening and salacious book and magazine printed to come into us, and then set his objection on a magazine that didn’t carry a single article or item not calculated to lift the consciousness of its readers.
The old man listened patiently until I had spent myself. Then he said: “All true, and heroically put, son. It’s pleasing to unburden ourselves sometimes of what has all the ear-marks of justifiable indignation. But the trouble with it in this case is that it only makes bad matters worse. Remember the little game you’re playing? Well, it’s a broad game. Any situation can be fitted into it. But not with hate and criticism; that is, if you expect to win.”
“But how in this case?” I asked him.
“How did you break down enmity over in the shop?” He said no more. But his suggestion was enough.
I set about to formulate a new game around the chaplain. First I studied him and got to the bottom of his reasons for withholding my literature. I couldn’t agree with those reasons. They seemed narrow and unreasonable to me. But I did grant him the right to entertain them, even though they had the appearance of injury to me. I told myself that since the material printed in this magazine was in conflict with the religious creed held by the chaplain he was actuated by that consideration alone, and that he was honestly sincere in his belief that such reading matter would do harm to those who read it.
As I reasoned thus, I could not help but feel sorry for a man laboring under such rigid limitations. And this emotion, although it is not true love, is mighty close to compassion. At any rate, I soon found myself creating genuinely loving thoughts toward my censor. I began visualizing him as I thought the Master might visualize him. And the more I played at the game the more I thought of him as an expression of God and the less I thought of him as an expression of limitation.
Besides, I found a way of doing a few little services for him without his finding out who did them. For instance, I pointed out to my keeper that three sun shades would greatly improve the looks of the administration building. The keeper agreed with me and said he would point the same thing out to the warden. As a result I was permitted to make the shades as well as the pattern. I made them as attractive as I possibly could; and they did improve the looks of that part of the building. But the one most pleased with the innovation was the chaplain, because it was the windows to his study they shaded against the afternoon sun.
On another occasion I was able to acquire a red-lettered student’s Bible, a beautiful book, and have it placed on the chaplain’s desk in his absence. On the first flyleaf I had written, “With the compliments of a friend.”
In the meantime I spoke no word to him. I attended his services and found him saying things that were illuminating and admirable—things that I had formerly closed my mind against with a door of indifference and prejudice. With this door now opened the effect was exhilarating. I seemed to lose all interest in his human faults and shortcomings, particularly as they affected me. I began to think of him in terms of brotherly love and to feel what I thought intensely.
Then one noon day he came down the gallery and stopped in front of our cell. He carried under his arm several magazines and pamphlets that had been sent to me. He told me that he had seen fit to censor them because they dealt with pantheism, a dangerous doctrine. Recently, however, he had changed his mind and decided to allow me to have books, providing I would promise not to pass them on to others. I made no such promise; nor did he seem insistent on that point. I thanked him, and we talked for quite some time in a real get-acquainted fashion, and a friendship was there established between us that was active until the day I bade him good-bye.
TRUTHUNITY NOTE: There is evidence that the materials that had been witheld by the chaplain were Unity publications. Lewis Dunnington, a Methodist minister, writes in his book Handles of Power, about a visit he made to Unity: “When we stopped at the large file that contains the names of tens of thousands of individuals across the world who have received help from Unity publications, I took a look at the card of Starr Daily. I had read his book, Love Can Open Prison Doors, and I already knew what a spiritual power this man had become through his writings and his lectures. How surprised I was to learn that when he first read a Unity publication he was a sour, disgruntled prisoner in a state institution! His use of the Silent Communion technique and of his absolute faith in the power of God had really opened prison doors and started him on a career of spiritual helpfulness that is almost without parallel in the annals of religious literature. Starr Daily is only one of the tens of thousands whose lives have been healed and integrated through the Unity movement in the last half-century.”
This demonstration, and it was a demonstration, of the power of love to use creative principle effectively against adverse conditions, not only helped me in this particular, but it helped scores of mv fellows, because shortly after it the chaplain lifted his ban on the literature of this publishing house and this prison became one among many into which this house sent free reading matter to the inmates.
Obviously, love can open prison doors—all manner of prison doors. But of all the doors most important to open, none is more important than the door of self. Self-conquest through sublimation is the key to the fullest realm of livingness.
I do not presume to say that I have conquered myself. But I have traveled a piece of the way, and I am moving in the right direction. Looking down the list on the liability side of my ledger, I can now see many items that have undergone a process of transformation and now adorn the side on which I’ve written down my assets. This side of my list is longer now than the liability side, much longer. Many little victories have made it so, and each one of those small victories carried with it its own particular thrill. The game has been pleasurable and there is still much room for play. My asset list is only partially complete. I shall probably never complete it in my remaining lifetime, but I’ll have a lot of fun playing the game to that end.
It will be recalled that at the time my list was made I suffered from many physical ills. These have all vanished without my being aware of the reconditioning process. Wholesome, constructive thinking did the trick, reflecting in my physical organism that which I held in my mind.
Since that time, and it has been several years, I’ve suffered very few physical indispositions. My body converts food into energy almost instantly now. I follow sane health rules, of course, for they are constructive and it pays to follow them. With excellent elimination and excellent assimilation, I am no longer a sufferer of that powerful physical enemy of man, inertia. I can work long hours without feeling fatigue. I can induce sleep within a moment and rest, perfectly relaxed for six hours, undisturbed by dreams or noise. All of which is something. Or at least to me it has been worth gaining, especially since the method used to gain it was a joy in itself. Cheerfulness to me now is a habit I seldom feel moved to break. Those long periods of hopelessness, indecision, worry, fear and lassitude are all over.
My greatest joy is obtained from playing my little game of deeds, of finding something I can do for others in a helpful constructive way. And although the joy is found in the doing, somehow these services have never failed to return good for good, in the same coin, only with multiplied interest, in the manner they were sent out.
As one of numerous instances of this kind, the case of Paul Harding comes easily to my mind. Paul was one of those many thoughtful, retiring boys who are frequently misunderstood, even by members of their own families, and who, as a consequence of this misunderstanding, often get off on the wrong foot for a start in life.
When I first knew Paul, I found him striving desperately to conceal his strong emotional life behind a front of callous pretense, sophistication, indifference, boredom. His efforts were pathetic. I saw behind these efforts the soul of a poet. And when I had broken away his false restraints, he admitted that as long as he could remember he had wanted to write verse. However, his early family life had not been conducive to or sympathetic with his ambition. Instead of constructive praise for his embryonic attempts, he had received ridicule, and this above all other forms of discouragement, is positively murder to a sensitive soul.
I promptly responded to his ambition and asked him to let me see some of his poems. He hadn’t written any since he had been in prison, but with the interest I showed in his ability to do so, he produced a little poem in his cell that night, and strangely enough it displayed nothing of his pretense or the effects of his environment. It was a crude piece. Even I could see that. But the potential poet was there just the same. The theme of it was Pollyannaish. I advised him not to show it to any one else; for I well knew how it would be received and I also knew what such a reception would do for him. Instead, I encouraged him and set him to work writing more of them. And that was about the extent of my ability to help him. I knew nothing about the technique of verse-making.
When I told Dad about my predicament he laughed. “Well, you’ve got your foot in it,” he said. “So you just as well get a book on poetry and learn to write it yourself. That’s the only way you can go any farther toward helping the boy.”
And that is what I did. Paul and I studied verse-making together. And by and by we entered into a sort of competitive race. The idea was to see who would have his first poem published. Paul beat me with a fine little poem which was printed in his county newspaper. From then on he was a regular contributor to this paper, and later, before he left prison, a volume of his poems was brought out.
Now here is the way I profited through this bit of service. First, it was great fun. Second, I learned enough about it to be able to write topical verses and humorous verses, which I sold to magazines and newspapers under all kinds of names, and with the money acquired in this way, I was able to employ a lawyer for a friend who was innocent of the charge against him, a fact which was fully and completely established when his lawyer obtained a new trial for him.
This money was later returned by my friend with an additional sum and was promptly used over again toward the purchase of a community radio, the first one to be put into this prison for our sole benefit. And what a boon it was! Especially during the baseball season when we could get the returns of our favorite team play by play, instead of having to wait until the next day to read it all through stale news accounts.
I have said nothing about the real value of this poetry game as that value affected the life of Paul Harding. Need I say more than this: he gave up crime for poetry; he has prospered and so has society.
1935 Edition Printed by DeVorss & Co., Publishers
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