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April 29, 2012


By Davin Douma

             I was standing in my unit manager’s tiny office when I got the news.  It was four to one against.  There would be no parole for at least three more years.  I sat in the chair across from the desk and looked at a blank white wall.  One thought kept running through my head over and over again.  Why?

            I first saw the parole board in 1999 after I had served fifteen calendar years on my life sentence.  That was the minimum requirement before the board would even consider me.  There is a three step process involved where the prisoner first has to make it past a records review, then a personal appearance in front of the five member board, and then review by the state governor.  If you make it past all three you get out.  If at any point in the process you don’t get the votes, you’re stuck for at least three more years.

            I had been evaluated for parole four times and still hadn’t made it.  My unit manager shook his head and asked me the same question I had been asking myself.  “Why?”  He knew there wasn’t an answer, but he couldn’t help but ask anyway.

            I am one of those prisoners that gets along well with just about everyone.  I had plenty of education (three correspondence degrees), took lots of programs (everything the state offered), and was always recommended by the parole investigator, my case manager, and my unit manager.  I was a so-called model prisoner, but I could get nothing form the parole board.  What was worse was that most of the people I had known who came into the system when I did had already made it out.  Most of them had a lot less education, fewer programs, and worse conduct records.  There was something going on that I didn’t know or understand.  It was odd enough that even the prison staff were asking questions.

            My unit manager reached for the phone but then stopped.  “It wont do any good to ask.  You know that, right?”

            I nodded my head.  In Oklahoma a prisoner doesn’t have the right to know by what standard they will be judged by with the parole board.  If you don’t make it they don’t tell you why.  They don’t tell you that you haven’t served enough time or haven’t taken enough programs.  They don’t tell you that the politics aren’t right at the time and you have nothing coming.  You are simply kept in the dark and left wondering where you have fallen short.  It is the kind of dilemma that is completely frustrating.  How do you fix something that isn’t broken?  How do you find the solution to a problem when you don’t know what the problem is?

            Most people spend their whole lives struggling to find solutions to the problems they face.  I know because I do it myself everyday.  The struggle has become inherent in our western culture.  We believe that if we have a problem, we can find a solution to it.  We believe that there is an answer to everything.  Oddly enough, this isn’t true.

            The myth of problem solving begins when we are little kids.  Our parents tell us that we can be anything.  We can do anything.  We can go anywhere.  We are told that life has no limits and we are completely free.  The idea is a fine one, but it is not an accurate reflection of reality.  You might want to go on a year long trip sailing around the world, but who is going to pay for your kids to eat and the mortgage on your home.  You might want to become a NASCAR driver, but you’re now forty five and sweating a promotion at work.

            I’m not saying that dreams are not good things and goals should not be lofty.  But at the same time it is important to keep your life in perspective and understand your limitations.  There is nothing I can do to change the parole board’s votes.  There is no solution to that problem.

            Maybe I should make a distinction here about problems that are meaningful and problems that are not.  A flat tire is not a meaningful problem, it’s just a pain in the ass.  Not having a clean shirt to wear is not a meaningful problem.  Meaning, as it relates to problems, is about your quality and quantity of life.  Meaning is about the relationships you have with other people.  Meaning comes from things that matter and most dilemma’s in life don’t.  In short, there is a difference between what is merely annoying and what is actually painful.

            The real trick in life is not coming up with the answer that no one else sees.  It isn’t finding a solution to a problem that only appears insurmountable.  It is not about keeping a smile on your face no matter the personal destruction.  Most meaningful problems in life have no solution.  The question is not what you should do, but how much you can take.

            I call it endurance.  What you can endure is a true measure of your character.  How much hell can you put up with?  How much pain can you suffer?  How much disappointment does it take to fill your tanks?  When one of your parents die, how do you respond?  How do you act when your dog gets run over?  When the doctor tells you that you are dying, can you go on?  It is our species ability to endure anything that is our most powerful survival trait.

            Just look at what we have survived as a species.  Look at the wars.  Look at the death camps.  Look at the fallout from nuclear blasts.  Look at the black death and the yellow fever and leprosy.  Look at a child in a hospice.  Our endurance is our true strength.

            There is a trick to endurance that I learned a long time ago.  A trick that has served me well.  It is like a key to one of the basic understandings we learn from our life experiences.

            About ten years ago my father asked me a question in the prison visiting room.  At the time I had been in for fifteen years and they had been long and hard on us both.  He asked me how I did it.  He wanted to know how I had managed to survive all the years and all the hate and all the destruction that is prison life.  How had I done it and remained sane.  At first I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I saw it in a flash of understanding.  It was one of those rare epiphany moments where the light comes on in the mind and suddenly you can see clearly for the first time.

            The answer is acceptance.  When you don’t have a choice and there is no solution, you must accept the problem or it will destroy you.  You must endure it for however long it takes.  If there is no option, what else can you do.  Meaningful problems rarely have solutions.  The cops have the guns and the keys and I am a prisoner.  There is no solution to my parole problem.  I have to wait three more years and try again.  Endurance.

 Copyright 2010

Davin Douma

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