MLK & Freedom in Prison – Excerpt from “The Leadership Muse” — Chapter 27

Chapter 27. Freedom in a Prison

“In the desert of the heart Let the healing fountains start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.” – W.H. Auden, British poet Pastor and writer

Rowland Croucher speaks about how the leaders who can teach us our mettle have spent time in the desert, or in prison. In the poem above, W.H. Auden casts the tone for how this happens, pairing the desert with prison as symbolic places where men heal and learn how to praise.

Martin Luther King, Jr., sharpened his focus and vision for civil rights in a lonely cell, imprisoned behind parallel bars of metal. In 1963, he penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a reaction to criticism that the civil-rights battle should be fought solely in courtrooms. In his cell, he developed his message and a plan for implementing non-violent protests and civil disobedience:

Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodies” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

It was from prison – that desert of loneliness, silence, and personal suffering – that King poured from his heart a call to action that would help end the loneliness of segregation, the silence of injustice, and the suffering endured by people of color everywhere.

Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, writes that enduring and surviving suffering helps us ultimately find purpose and meaning in life. Like King in his the Birmingham cell, Frankl began conceptualizing his book amid suffering, despair, and hopelessness as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. King and Frankl have a valuable lesson for all of us, whether we endeavor to lead or just survive: Survival during suffering is really only possible when one becomes dedicated to a cause greater than himself. Holocaust prisoners lost everything – their possessions, degrees, businesses, and loved ones. The only thing left for them to hold onto was the meaning and purpose they could find in their lives. The misery evident on the surface did not diminish the beauty which lied underneath.

Frankl tells of resilience and how the human psyche can rise above the desert of suffering and misery when he writes: We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

In prison, you have no control and no possessions but you retain control over how you respond to your condition. The choice to control our response in captivity provides a freedom to rise above our apparent fate and draw upon the inner strength inherent in all of us – even the most ordinary of us. We survive because we know why we want or need to continue living. As he endured years of suffering, Frankl sought to help others find meaning, and his work has inspired generations of leaders.

The Apostle Paul spent nearly six years of his ministry in a Roman prison. However, during his imprisonment, he was upbeat, optimistic, encouraging, and faithful. Despite the horrible conditions, he demonstrated to his followers that they, like him, could draw on spiritual strength to endure. He wrote powerful letters from his cell that survive in four chapters of the New Testament: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. To the Philippians, Paul acknowledged the source of his inner strength: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

After my experience “imprisoned” in a C-suite, in a job so stressful and tenuous that no one else wanted it, I can certainly vouch for the fact that there’s something about a desert or a prison (or a really hard time) that hones your leadership skills. Perhaps it develops your faith. Perhaps it clears out all distractions until you can finally hear the still-small voice of your Muse. It may lower your inhibition to be a little crazy and simultaneously strengthen your resolve and endurance for performing the impossible tasks that leadership often requires. Or maybe it helps you answer one of life’s most important questions: Why do you need to act, live, believe, or lead?

In hindsight, my desert experience in that horrible job helped me learn some of my most valuable lessons about leadership. I overcame difficult challenges and emerged bruised but stronger. In order to endure, survive, and succeed, I had to dig deep within my core in order to reach the finish line, and there I found out so much about myself and my strength.

The next time you are in a desert or prison in your own life or career, when you look around at your scarce resources, dig deep and choose instead to see life, and life abundant, because you are in the perfect place to find faith, stamina, courage, and an oasis of purpose and meaning.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This is an excellent post, Linda.

There are so many examples of people who’ve found the “prison” or “desert” to be a place of liberation – Mahatma Gandhi, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the list goes on and on (I wish I had some women to add to that list off the top of my head…would love to cite those examples, too.)

And it causes us to ask two questions:

(1) Why do we fight the prison when we feel we’re there? Like you in your job, Linda, or others who are feeling trapped in a stifling circumstance, I think it’s in those moments that life asks us the most profound questions…and when we seek to escape before learning the lessons. Ultimately, those lessons make us even more powerful when we can emerge from captivity recognizing that we are always and everywhere free to respond to everything we encounter…that we are never really “captive” – especially when we see our lives in light of an unfettered eternity.

(2) Why do we not seek more moments of voluntary “imprisonment”? Why don’t we divest ourselves of the “trappings” of life – possessions and even people – to get away to the desert and just be captivated by what “is”? Why don’t we lock ourselves in a room and just reflect more regularly?

Thanks for helping me take this moment of on-the-move meditation today, Linda.

Megan Price

Very good post! It does make me think about my moments of imprisonment and realize/remember the many lessons I learned about myself during those tough times in life. While, unlike Andrew, I don’t wish for them to return; I do however know that if they do I am stronger because of it, I can handle it and I look forward to the silver lining.

Corey McCarren

@Andrew, bell hooks and Harriet Tubman are a couple that come to mind for me. Also Andrew, I like you mentioning trying to “escape before learning the lessons.” I can definitely think of an example of a time that I tried to get out of something before I learned the lessons of that hardship but couldn’t, and in the end I was a much better person for it.