Thanksgiving in Prison

scrooge christmas party

by Lori F.

I have a friend in prison. At some point years ago he made choices that are hard to imagine now, but may have seemed like a good idea at the time.  He later made changes in his life, turned over a new leaf, began to come to church, and made friends there, but those earlier choices had not conveniently evaporated, and their aftermath eventually led him to prison.  As Thanksgiving approached I thought about my friend, whether he would get turkey that day. I wondered whether a prison version of America’s most iconic meal would act as a comfort or a taunt, reminding inmates they weren’t where they would like to be. Whatever he ate, I feel fairly certain my friend would have remembered to have the Giving Thanks part of Thanksgiving at some point.

The letters he’s written to me are upbeat and pleasant. You might wonder how he manages it. I don’t think it’s because he’s just an irrepressibly happy person. It can’t be easy keeping his spirits up. But I assume he has made a choice, this time a wise one, to look for the good and be grateful. I’m sure the good is sometimes hard to see, perhaps hard to imagine. He may have to remember it, or manufacture it. In any case, he works at it, and his work pays off.  Such effort requires resourcefulness, I’m sure. A few Christmases ago he sent a Christmas card to our congregation, a nice drawing he had made, hand colored.  His wife told me he didn’t have art supplies, so he sorted M&Ms into color groups and soaked the colored candy coating off of them, using that for paint. Not easy, but he’s got lots of time on his hands.  Clearly, he’s very good at working with what he has. It appears he’s also able to look at his life and find things to be grateful for. Those of us not in prison for Thanksgiving might find it hard to believe he would have many blessings to count. But adversity has a remarkable capacity for focusing our thinking.

The banished Duke in Shakespeare’s As You Like It reminds us that “sweet are the uses of adversity.” It’s tempting to argue with this, especially when we’re in the midst of some terrible circumstance; it’s hard to imagine sweet being associated with adversity in any way. We’re reluctant to admit it, but we don’t taste the sweet as intensely until we’ve experienced the bitter. The idea is expressed in scripture this way: “For if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet.” I’m not suggesting we all go out in search of bitterness. I hope that for Thanksgiving we all enjoy time with friends and family, and something good to eat. But I do hope we recognize our happiness doesn’t depend on our circumstances, but on our choices, and on the meaning we make in our lives.

Perhaps you’ve found you don’t have to be tasting the bitter yourself for it to have an intensifying effect on the sweet. When we consider challenges others face, we may be better able to see our own circumstances in a new light. I’m grateful I haven’t had Thanksgiving in a prison cafeteria. I think my friend is glad on my behalf, and would be happy to know my thinking about him helps me to better appreciate my own circumstances.

Among the many things I’m thankful for, I include these: that the experiences of others can instruct us and affect us, and that we are free to choose the way we will respond to the experiences of our own lives. With practice, we can build gratitude into the way we meet each day. We can emulate Shakespeare’s banished Duke in the forest of Arden, whose courtier observed, “Happy is your Grace, that can translate the stubbornness of fortune into so quiet and so sweet a style.” More than anything else in my life, I’m grateful for the Savior Jesus Christ. The gift of his life and sacrifice are the basis for all the good I experience. Without him, I would spend every Thanksgiving, and every other day, in a prison, without hope that I could overcome my weaknesses and my past mistakes. Because of him, I can be free. It is my hope to be able to follow the scriptural admonition to “live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon [me].”

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