Finding Meaning in a Life Prison Sentence

In 1930 the historian and philosopher Will Durant—who was at that time a famous public intellectual—received a number of letters from persons declaring their intent to commit suicide. The letters asked him for reasons to go on living. In response Durant asked a number of luminaries for their views on the meaning of life, publishing those responses in his 1932 book, On the Meaning of Life.

As the manuscript was being prepared for publication, Durant received a letter from “Convict 79206” at the Sing Sing maximum-security prison in New York. The convict had been recently sentenced to life in prison and Durant published the letter as an appendix to the above-mentioned book. Of its contents, Durant wrote: “It is incredible that we should be unable to find any better use for such intelligence than to lock it up forever.”

Convict 79206’s response is too long to print here, but we can highlight a few of its points. He argued that suicide would be permissible for those who found life meaningless, but that he had not yet reached that point. He maintained that life was accidental but not necessarily meaningless. He was not religious and advised against seeking “comfort in delusions, false tradition, and superstition.” He discussed the difference between truth, which is neither beautiful or ugly, and belief  “the idol-worshiping strain in our natures.” He said that “happiness is a state of mental contentment [which] can be found on a desert island, in a little town, or the tenements of a large city.” And he was optimistic about the future:”[Humans are] an integral part of the universe in which [they] live, that universe which is ever-moving forward to some appointed destiny.”

At the end of the letter, before heading back to live what most of us would assume is a futile and meaningless existence, convict 79206 painted a picture with his words. Through them, his dignity, integrity, and strength of character shone forth.

This evening I stood in the prison yard amid other prisoners, with eyes lifted aloft  gazing at that great … airship … as it sailed majestically over our heads. Into my mind came the thought that, just as that prehistoric creature struggled up out of the sea to the land, so is man struggling up from the land into the air. Who dare deny that, some day, up, ever up he will struggle thru the great reaches of interstellar space to wrest from it the knowledge which will enable him to lift his life to a plane as high above this, our present one, as it is above that of prehistoric man?

I do not know to what great end Destiny leads us, nor do I care very much. Long before that end, I shall have played my part, spoken my lines, and passed on. How I play that part is all that concerns me.

In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure.

Owen C. Middleton (convict 79206) was a transhumanist before his time and a man of greater depth and humanity than most. How much potential wastes away in our prisons.


Note – This post first appeared on this blog on March 7, 2014. 

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6 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in a Life Prison Sentence

  1. Prisoners do need religion—what else could they find in the clink strong enough to ease their minds, than some form of religion? Can’t think of anything else.
    If say a prisoner were to meditate, they would gravitate to religion unless their sentence was fairly ‘brief’. A sentence of two years could be passed without resort to religion: but a sentence longer than a couple of years would be unbearable without religion.

  2. What can we say about Convict 79206, except that he is first and foremost a realist, and, as the saying goes ‘When life hands you Lemons make Lemonade”. He has learned to make Lemonade and perhaps he enjoys its taste, I’ve never been incarcerated but I do believe that some men actually enjoy the structured life, they make friends among the other inmates and ‘Life’ such as it is, goes on without the necessity of worrying about, Food, Shelter, clothing, Doctors, Dentists or Medicine, somewhat like living in a Monastery for Bad boys!
    For many this may be the first ‘security’ they have ever known!

  3. Such lame comments!
    He was certainly intelligent, clearl-headed and at peace. It’s such a shame that even most educated Americans now are incapable of speaking at the same intellectual level as this prisoner of yore was.

  4. thanks for the comment Noel. (Mine was sarcastic.) So much wasted human potential in our high-tech dungeons. And so many horrible people in important positions in the outside world.

  5. The prisoner of yore was supposedly superior to us benighted, muddle-headed and unpeaceful educated Americans. Who are ‘incapable’ of speaking at the intellectual level of a prisoner none of us ever conversed with and know only from the words recorded above.
    Progressives generally aren’t aware that an uncivilized world is going to possess uncivilized prisons. The world has to become more humane for prisons to become more humane.
    Activists are falsely modest: they say they don’t know what to do about prisons, but that someday (that is to say, fifty or a hundred or more yrs from now) their descendants will know what to do about reforming prisons. As if progress is automatic.
    Politics are becoming purely propagandistic, making people feel better that although we’re clueless, a very long time from now—when we are gone—some beings will come along who will somehow know what to do.

    What is discouraging today re prison reform is how activists can make a hero-victim out of a murderer such as Mumia. No thank you, please.

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