The holidays can be challenging for any of us, but for those in prison and their families they are a reminder of the separation and isolation many experience. Lisa and I spent five Christmas holidays apart. During those years we learned how to make the most of those times and to turn them into something positive and instructive. Here are some of the lessons we learned:
1. Don’t isolate yourself. There is a tendency during the holidays for both those in prison and their loved ones to turn inward and isolate themselves from their family and friends. Fight this urge. I learned to focus on my faith and to congregate with those who shared it. I would attend various events the prison offered including listening to singing groups from the outside and attending special worship services. Lisa would spend time with her family and also attend seasonal events to be around others.
2. Serve others. One of the best ways to avoid getting sucked into depression is to find ways to serve others. This can be challenging in prison where a culture of selfishness persists. But it is possible. For example, there are often other inmates with little to no family support and won’t get any gifts or cards for the holidays (except for the gift bag of snacks from the BOP). We would get together and contribute various foods and toiletries to give as gifts to those with less than us. Lisa would take part in the Angel Tree program from Prison Fellowship (http://www.prisonfellowship.org/atc/atc2014/angel-tree-christmas-2014-2/?sc=WB1521020) and Operation Christmas Child through Samaritan’s Purse (http://www.samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child/).
3. Focus on the positive. In prison you have a lot of time to do something or do nothing. I tried to use my time during the holidays to consume positive materials. I would read and study the Bible and other uplifting books, watch movies with a positive message, continue to workout (even during the frigid Ohio winters), and listen to positive music. We are what we “eat”. If we only consumer negative materials it will result in a negative spirit.
4. Communicate. Every year I would send out about 40 Christmas cards to people I cared about. Not all of them ever wrote me or acknowledged the card, but that’s not why I did it. I did it to demonstrate my love and concern for those I care about. It also helped me feel connected to those on the outside. I suggest reaching out to those you love and expressing both your regret for your actions as well as your desire to heal your relationship. Not everyone is going to respond positively, but that is not why you do it. You do it as a selfless gesture.
5. Decorate. Lisa sent me a little “tree” which was really part of a Christmas card. I kept it my entire time and put it up every year in my cell. It was a reminder of her love for me and also that life does go on for me and for her. While we couldn’t have many decorations, we could do a little. And that can be enough to kindle that spark of joy that comes with the season.
Christmas is meant to be a joyous time when we celebrate the birth of the Son of God and the sacrifice He made for us. We can be a force of joy or a source of disappointment and bitterness. We do have a choice.