“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
1: The year was 1966. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a contender for the middleweight boxing title.
Then, he experienced a bewildering fall. At the height of his career, he was “wrongly accused of a horrific crime he did not commit: triple homicide. He went on trial, and a biased, bogus verdict followed: three life sentences,” writes Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
But Hurricane realized he had a choice of how he would respond to this extreme experience. “Waiting in line to be entered into the general inmate population, he asked to speak to someone in charge,” Ryan writes.
“Looking the warden in the eye,” Ryan notes, he “proceeded to inform him and the guards that he was not giving up the last thing he controlled: himself. In his remarkable declaration, he told them, in so many words, ‘I know you had nothing to do with the injustice that brought me to this jail, so I’m willing to stay here until I get out. But I will not under any circumstances, be treated like a prisoner—because I am not and never will be powerless.'”
Hurricane could have crumbled. He could have given up. He didn’t. He “declined to surrender the freedoms that were innately his: his attitude, his beliefs, his choices,” Ryan writes. “Whether they threw him in prison or threw him in solitary confinement for weeks on end, Carter maintained that he still had choices, choices that could not be taken from him even though his physical freedom had been.”
2: Was he angry about the injustice he experienced? Of course. “But understanding that anger was not constructive, he refused to rage. He refused to break or grovel or despair,” Ryan notes.
What did he do instead? “Every second of his energy was to be spent on his legal case. Every waking minute was spent reading—law books, philosophy, history. They hadn’t ruined his life—they’d just put him somewhere he didn’t deserve to be and he did not intend to stay there.
“He would learn and read and make the most of the time he had on his hands,” writes Ryan. “He would leave prison not only a free and innocent man, but a better and improved one.”
Which was what he did. Nineteen years after being wrongly imprisoned, Hurricane walked out of jail a free man. He “simply resumed his life,” Ryan writes. “No civil suit to recover damages, he did not even request an apology from the court. Because to him, that would imply that they’d taken something of his that [Hurricane] felt was owed. That had never been his view, even in the dark depths of solitary confinement.
“He had made his choice,” Ryan observes. “This can’t harm me—I might not have wanted it to happen, but I decide how it will affect me. No one else has the right.”
3: What’s the lesson here for us?
We get to decide what we will make of each and every experience in our lives.
We get to decide what story we will tell ourselves about what has happened.
We get to decide whether we will fall to pieces or whether we’ll persist and endure.
“No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of,” Ryan writes. “They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions.”
No matter the situation, we are never entirely powerless.
“If an unjust prison sentence can be not only salvaged but transformative and beneficial, then for our purposes, nothing we’ll experience is likely without potential benefit,” Ryan notes. “In fact, if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad.”
As Shakespeare wrote: “Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
There is what happened. And then there is the story we tell ourselves about what happened and what it means.
That’s the power of perception. “Applicable in each and every situation, impossible to obstruct. It can only be relinquished. And that is our decision,” Ryan writes.
Reflection: Consider a difficult situation in my life. What is the story I and telling myself about this situation? Is there a different story I can tell?
Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.