Victim or Hero?

With the human psyche so wired for connection, it’s understandable that some inmates on death row will forego lengthy appeals and choose death over remaining indefinitely in solitary confinement. About the only thing prisoners can do in interminable isolation is to go mad, and the damage is usually permanent.

And then there are those stories where the world needs to be saved through a top-secret mission, and only one man is fit for the job, but he happens to have been railroaded in a cover-up and shipped off to a prison, a captive in solitary confinement ... only to somehow, eventually emerge victorious to conquer his oppressors and achieve the ultimate success for himself and his country.

In a way, these plots resemble the story of Joseph. After 12 years in an Egyptian dungeon, the balance of power abruptly swings in Joseph’s favor as he is appointed Viceroy of Egypt on the spot. While the entire Joseph story is captivating, I am fascinated by pivotal moments where a storyline can go either way. What is it, I wonder, that makes one person emerge from a painful prison experience bitter and hardened, or wild-eyed and incoherent, while another uses the moment to self-actualize and, by the way, masterfully save the entire ancient world?

There’s a Bigger Picture Here

Maybe it has to do with the stories they tell themselves about who they are and why they are here. In the dreams of his youth, Joseph fully understood that he was destined to be major player in a Divine plan. No matter what he experienced, he never lost sight of a vision that he trusted would unfold. That attitude requires taking the long-game view of life. And so, Joseph knew when to be proactive and “make it happen,” and when to be surrendered and “let it happen.” To do this, however, one needs a high degree of self-regulation—a coming back to center, which allows our best selves to naturally show up and make optimal choices that create a positive outcome. Even in prison.

Freedom Defined

We find a modern-day Joseph in the story of the famous refusenik, Anatoly (“Natan”) Sharansky, who was sentenced to 13 years in a Soviet labor camp for the crime of wanting to emigrate to Israel. After serving nine years—most of which was spent in solitary confinement—Sharansky was released. And after emigrating to Israel, he founded a political party and became a member of the Israeli parliament, holding a number of distinct positions over the years. Sharansky recounts how he used to tell anti-Soviet jokes to his interrogators, where they had to exercise tremendous restraint to contain their laughter. “And I said to them, ‘You cannot even laugh when you want to laugh, and you want to tell me that I’m in prison and you’re free?’ ”

Sharansky defines freedom as the moment when he claimed his autonomy, when he realized that only he could humiliate himself, and only he could be ashamed of his actions. “If I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing, if I feel myself part of this great historic process, and I am true to the image of G‑d in which we are created—I am a free person.”

When we allow other people to define us and write our stories, we imprison ourselves. When we are on autopilot, we lose track of our vision—the who of who we are and why we are here. On the other hand, when we trust that the narrative arc of our lives is part of the unfolding of a divine destiny, then we can bear suffering as part of the hero’s journey, even if there is no “happy ending.”

As Sharansky said, even if he were to have died in that prison, he knows that he would have died a free man. Tormentors and oppressors are bit actors performing a role in the cosmic play of our lives. It is we, however, who can define our character and write our lines. And if we can navigate terminal illnesses, personal tragedy and heartbreak—and yet remain unbroken and still maintain our faith—then we are free.

How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything

We don’t exist in a vacuum, but within a context—the context of relationship. Look at your life close to home. In every relationship we have, there are pivotal moments where it can go either way. Whether it is a family member, spouse, child, co-worker, neighbor, etc., whenever we get triggered or whenever that hot button is making our blood start to boil, that is the exact instant, the pivotal moment when the storyline we create in our head will drive one of two outcomes.

Ask yourself: “How do I want this to go?” We can act with compassion or criticism, curiosity or control, unconditional love or judgment. Instead of resisting life, let life be your teacher. You may be in prison, but that doesn’t mean you have to be anyone’s prisoner.