I am a poor mendicant. My earthly possessions consist of six spinning wheels, prison dishes, a can of goat’s milk, six homespun loincloths and towels and my reputation, which cannot be worth much. – Mahatma Gandhi
Have you ever wondered how you would pass the time if you were in prison?
Not because you’ve done something wrong and been punished by the state – but because you have done something that you believe in.
Like the people we see in stories in other parts of the world – stories about people protesting for freedom, protesting against their politicians, falling foul of a state, or perhaps as a consequence of conflict – as a prisoner of war.
The point really is not why you’re in prison, but what you’re going to do once you’re there.
This arresting TEDx talk by Captain Charlie Plumb is about the 6 years he spent in captivity in Vietnam.
Six years where he paced three steps up and three steps down – the 8-foot length and width of his prison cell.
If you were in prison, perhaps having books or even pen and paper might make it more bearable.
Surely you could at least be with your own thoughts?
Charlie Plumb didn’t have those.
Neither did Jakow Trachtenberg – who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp – where he came up with his system of mental mathematics to keep himself occupied.
So, how did Plumb make it through the six years he was there – what lessons does he have for the rest of us?
The starting point, he says, is that a prison eight feet long is bigger than the prison 8 inches wide that many people keep between their ears.
Whether you’re trapped in a situation you don’t know how to get out of, or are unsure about what to do next – the things holding you back can often be found in just one place.
You can do three things to escape, Plumb says.
The first thing is to pack a parachute – to be ready physically, mentally, spiritually for what may come.
Prison is a scary place – and yet people throughout history have overcome that fear to make their point.
Gandhi, for example, ate from metal prison dishes even after he was released to show that he was always ready to go back to prison in the service of his cause.
Plumb, as a military officer, had been trained for what he might face – but that didn’t make it any easier.
But being packed must have helped.
The second thing you can do is drop an anchor.
That means having something to hold on to – memories of home, of people. Faith in a higher power.
Something more than yourself – a purpose that flows through you and helps you get through each day one at a time.
And the final thing, he says, is to tug on the wire.
The wire, in his story, is the way the prisoner in the next cell communicated with him.
They had a code they could use to pass messages by moving the wire – and suddenly he had the ability to talk to someone else.
But, at first, he nearly stayed away from the wire – away from something new and risky.
And the lesson there is that when you are given a chance to try something – take it.
Be open to experimenting, to learning, to finding out.
The chances are that we’ll never have to have the same kind of experience – we hope we never have to.
But, if you think about what you would do – you probably can’t help but get stronger inside.