Change is Not a Destination

by Paul Swehla

The only real question was whether or not to kill myself. I had just received a two-hundred-sixty-two month federal prison sentence linked to the overdose and death of my best friend.

It reminded me of a time when I was fourteen years old. I was upstairs, alone, in my bedroom of our old farmhouse; my parents were below. I wrapped my mouth around the barrel of a loaded twenty-gauge, single-shot shotgun. With mindfulness of a Buddha, my eyes ran down the shaft to the cocked hammer. My left hand wrapped around the polished steel as my right hand cradled the stock, unnaturally, upside down. My thumb methodically broke the all-important barrier of the trigger guard and caressed that permanent key to change.

My teeth rattled the barrel and an electric shock went through my mouth to the back of my jaw. I can still taste the gun oil, the odor of which, to this day, conjures the fear and loneliness of that timeless, intimate moment. I thought about what it would mean for my parents to discover, with horror, the back of my skull and cerebral matter plastered all over my hand-painted, zebra-striped walls. Black, white and red have a harrowing effect. (Dear reader, friend and confidante, I have never before shared this with anyone.) I was too much of a coward to pull the trigger. However, I understood what the existential philosopher, Albert Camus, meant when he concluded that the only real question in life is whether or not to commit suicide.

Enter the existential crisis—angst, dread, apathy, fear, and self-pity. I felt a compressed rage at the absurd futility of life. From the way I saw it, I only had two options: suicide or acceptance. On one hand, my view of suicide was not limited to the physical. I had the option to disconnect from my reality through many distractions: cards, porn, gambling, drugs, hooch, TV, kickin’ it with the homies, etc. On the other hand, with a Zen-like clarity of mind, I realized that acceptance demanded responsibility. I had an obligation to make sense of Ryan’s death; to change, and to find meaning and purpose in my life.

Still, my mind reeled as I tried to process my punishment. Other inmates would come back from court with five, ten, and fifteen-year sentences. One guy received two years and was seriously considering suicide.

Really? He had nothing to complain about! I had a twenty-two-year sentence!

Yet slowly, dawn broke upon the dark night of my soul in the form of empathy. It began to occur to me that suffering is relative. That is, your suffering is just as real to you as mine is to me. (Take a moment to digest what that means, for it was only through this realization that I was able to grow beyond the confines of my immediate suffering.) This, I believe, is the catalyst for real change in life: to rise above our suffering through empathy.

After struggling through my crisis I was confronted with the classic existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? And thus began many years of deep soul searching and action-oriented change. However, change is not a destination; it is not some utopian place where we finally arrive. Life will ever present us with that perennial existential crisis.

I recently published my first book, Gilgul: Transmigration (Tikkun Publishing, 2016). When I finished this obscure little text that merges the classic Nordic tale of Peer Gynt with Jewish mysticism, reincarnation and redemption, I’d served more than a decade of my sentence. It is said there is irreversible psychological damage that occurs after seven years of incarceration. I personally have no doubt about this. I was exhausted from wrestling with the guilt, shame, remorse, self-pity, and humiliation of Ryan’s death.

My religious beliefs were evolving. Years of profound soul searching had left a deep void within me. I’d lost all of my appeals, my wife and son, my sister, and like Michael Stipe of REM, I ultimately lost my religion as well. With another decade in prison ahead of me, I tossed and turned through yet another dark night of the soul.

The paradox of the existential crisis demands action, a Kirkegaardian leap of faith. This always and inevitably boils down to taking responsibility for myself.

Today, I am incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished in the nearly fifteen years I’ve spent in prison. I’m even grateful. Daily, I remove the log from my own eye before I try to help my fellow inmate remove the sliver from his own. Over the years, I’ve taught GED and many adult continuing education classes. I’ve completed six vocational/technical programs, two apprenticeships, and throughout most of these years I’ve instructed these courses. I earned my bachelor’s degree in theology and Judaic studies. I published Gilgul, and my second book, The Dystopian Hermit Monk—a practical exercise in Buddhist philosophy and Jungian psychology—is forthcoming.

Most recently, I completed a very intensive ten-month residential drug and alcohol program.

It is said that experience is wisdom to the fool—and I can assure you that I am no exception to this rule.

I’ve learned to embrace my past because this defines who I am. People often ask if there is one thing I might change about my life. Though I have regrets, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m precisely the person I am today because of every single choice I’ve made. My experience is invaluable. To want to change anything from my past is to despise myself, and this I will no longer do. Instead, I’ve learned to let go of a lifetime of guilt and shame and love myself for who I am. Anything else would be hypocritical and negate the self.

Change is alive and ever-flowing; it is not a destination. Always there is a future, and forever, there is hope. We embrace our existential crises and emerge from the darkness not necessarily a changed person, but as a sort of new creation, an ever-changing work in progress with newfound hope and courage. Change, growth and redemption are achieved in the here and now.

All pontification aside, this is how I’ve come to realize my obligation to answer the only real philosophical question in life.