LESSONS IN LIFE: Cultivating Friendships
One annoying cliché repeated so often by prisoners who are still green behind the ears is, “A man doesn’t have any friends in prison. Only acquaintances.” I used to argue passionately with these fellows in an attempt to convert them: “How can you say that?” I asked. “I have several friends in here, good friends.” But to a man, it all came down to trust: “You’re crazy if you trust anybody in prison.” I never changed a single mind. I came to feel sorry for them, though. But I knew that if they stayed here long enough, they would learn the truth about another cliché–no man is an island.
When I was a teen, my grandfather would often remind me to choose my friends carefully. I never did though. I had one real friend and he chose me. I was a juvenile delinquent, whereas he was an upstanding boy. Throughout all my skullduggery, my friend was there for me–never embarrassed, never judging, never giving up on me. Fifty years later, he’s an engineer and I’m a seasoned convict. And we’re still friends. There’s a lesson here. It has to do with loyalty.
Prison has taught me some precious lessons about life. I’ve learned, for example, that there are two distinct worlds in which we human beings live–the internal and external. Each has its boundaries of freedom. My external world now consists of the walkways and hallways, the prison yard, the chapel and other buildings, and this little room of a cell. There is much more freedom, though, in my internal world. The walkways can lead to just about anywhere, and I am free to follow them. I am free to believe, too. I can believe in a God or none at all. I can choose to study algebra or geometry, trigonometry or calculus. I can choose to see the glass as half empty or half full. And if I choose, I can cultivate love and goodwill in the hearts and minds of others and my own.
And then there are lessons about friendship. How life is so much better when we have a few good friends to share it with. It takes time, years, to cultivate lasting friendships. It starts with trust. We take chances, we show our vulnerabilities, and it’s a beautiful thing when it’s reciprocated. Along the way, we learn to listen and encourage, we share our histories, our hills and valleys, we laugh and tease and sometimes cry together, and so much more.
Many of the friends I’ve gained over the years are fellow musicians. We worked hard together. We argued, we fussed, we created lots of goo music and many special memories. We grew as musicians and as human beings. We came to depend on each other for a smile or an ear when we needed it. There was a spiritual comfort in knowing that the had my back and I had theirs.
What do you do after you’ve shared years of your life with a friend who goes home and leave you behind, or dies suddenly? How do you deal with that “missing you” feeling, that homesick feeling you felt when you first came to prison?
We stay strong. We wait for time to lessen the pain. We work on new friendships. And from time to time, we rearrange the pictures of our friends in our photo albums; we relive the memories of them in our hearts and minds. And if that’s not enough, we talk to our old friends when we’re alone. We tell them how much we miss them.
And then we remember that in having known them, life itself has been good to us.
Patrick Middleton is a prisoner, author, and professional editor. Patrick is the author of Introduction to Experimental Psychology, 2nd edition (instructor’s manual and test battery and Research Methods, 3rd edition, (instructor’s manual and test battery); Healing Our Imprisoned Minds, a successful self-help book that is about to come out in a second edition; a memoir, Incorrigible; and the just released literary novel, Eureka Man. Patrick holds a Ph.D degree from the university of Pittsburg. He was an adjunct faculty member at both the University of Pittsburg (1983-1989) and Villanova University (2007-2010) for graduate and undergraduate students. He has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania since 1975.