Choose not to be harmed- and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed - and you haven’t been. -Marcus Aurelius
Rubin “Hurricane” carter, a top contender for the middleweight title, at the height of his boxing career in the mid 1960s, was wrongly accused of triple homicide. He went on trial, and a biased, bogus verdict followed: 3 life sentences. Carter reported to prison in an expensive, tailored suit, wearing a $5000 diamond ring and a gold watch. And so, waiting in line to be entered into the general inmate population, he asked to speak to someone in charge.
Looking the warden in the eye, Carter proceeded to inform him and the guards that he was not giving up the last thing he controlled: himself.
In his remarkable declaration, he told them, in so many words, “I know you had nothing to do with the injustice that brought me to this jail, so I’m willing to stay here until I get out. But I will not, under any circumstances, be treated like a prisoner- because I am not and never will be powerless.”
Instead of breaking down-as many would have done in such a break situation- Carter declined to surrender the freedoms that were innately his: his attitude, his beliefs, his choices. Whether they threw him in prison or threw him in solitary confinement for weeks on end, Carter maintained that he still had choices, choices that could not be taken from him even though his physical freedom had been.
Was he angry about what happened? Of Course. He was furious. But understanding that anger was not constructive, he refused to rage. He refused to break or grovel or despair. He would not wear a uniform,, eat prison food, accept visitors, attend parole hearings, or work in the commissary to reduce his sentence. And he wouldn’t be touched. No one could lay hands on him, unless they wanted a fight.
All of this had a purpose: Every second of his energy was spent reading-law books, philosophy, history.
They hadn’t ruined his life-they’d just put him somewhere he didn’t deserve to be and he did not intend to stay there. He would learn and read and make the most of the time he had on his hands. He would leave prison not only a free and innocent man, but a better and improved one.
It took nineteen years and two trials to overturn that verdict, but when carter walked out of prison, he simply resumed his life. No civil law suit to recover damages, Carter did not even request an apology from the court.
Because to him, that would imply that they’d taken something of his that Carter was felt owed. That had never been his view, even in the dark depths of solitary confinement. He had made his choice: This can’t harm me-I might not have wanted it to happen, but I decided how it will affect me. No one else has the right.
We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.
They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions.
Which is to say, we are never completely powerless. Even in prison, deprived of nearly everything, some freedoms remain. Your mind remains your own (if you’re lucky, you have books) and you have time, lots of time.
Carter did not have much power, but he understood that that was not the same thing as being powerless. Many great figures, from Nelson Mandela to Malcolm X, have come to understand this fundamental distinction. It’s how they turned prison into the workshop where they transformed themselves and the schoolhouse where they began to transform others.
If an unjust prison sentence can be not only salvaged but transformative and beneficial, then for our purposes, nothing we’ll experience is likely without potential benefit.
In fact, if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something-a judgement-that we, as human beings, bring to them with our perceptions.
To one person a situation may be negative. To another, that same situation may be positive.
“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Shakespeare put it.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic series Little House, lived that idea, facing some of the toughest and unwelcoming elements on the planet: harsh and unyielding soil, Indian territory, Kansas prairies, and the humid back-woods of florida. Not afraid, not jaded-because she saw it all as an adventure. Everywhere was a chance to do something new, to persevere with cheery pioneer spirit whatever fate befell her and her husband.
That isn’t to say she saw the world through delusional rose-colored glasses. Instead, she simply chose to see each situation for what it could be—accompanied by hard work and a little upbeat spirit. Others make the opposite choice. As for us, we face things that are not nearly as intimidating, and then we promptly decide we’re screwed.
This is how obstacles become obstacles.
In other words, through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation-as well as the destruction-of every one of our obstacles.
There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.
That’s a thought that changes everything, doesn’t it?
An employee in your company makes a careless mistake that costs you and your business. This can be exactly what you spend so much time and effort trying to avoid. Or, with a shift in perception, it can be exactly what you were looking for—the chance to pierce through defenses and teach a lesson that can be learned only by experience. A mistake becomes training.
Again, the event is the same: someone messed up. But the evaluation and the outcome are different. With one approach you took advantage; with the other you succumbed to anger and fear.
Just because your mind tells you that something is awful or evil or unplanned or otherwise negative doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves. Or whether we will tell one at all.
Welcome to the power of perception. Applicable in each and every situation, impossible to obstruct. It can only be relinquished. And that is your decision.