Beyond Bars: Columnist recalls a lesson of positivity from former cellmate
In the month before I left prison, another prisoner said to me, “I can tell you and your cellie are both short-timers, because you guys are way too happy for this place.” The interesting part about that was my cellie Paul was not a short-timer or even close. Paul is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and still he’s about the happiest guy I’ve ever met. Before I knew him and had spent time around him, I had heard him described as “a big ball of positive energy, someone you just can’t help but to want to be around.”
It seemed as if it was Paul’s mission to spread positivity. The last month I was in prison was December. In honor of Christmas, I decided to try be like Paul — look at the bright side of everything and go out of my way to say nice things and smile all the time. I really put my focus and discipline into the task. I probably brightened a few prisoners’ days, but there’s no doubt who benefitted the most — it was me. I had thought Paul’s permanent positive nature and constructive encouragement to others was him seeking redemption, but after my experiment, I realized he had discovered how to be happy in a place where you are bombarded with negativity and unpleasant circumstances.
As prisoners, we were constantly getting locked in our cells for hours and sometimes days at a time without warning. The officers would yell, “rack-in,” and you’d hear inmates curse and be pissed at the situation, but not Paul. We’d get to our cell and he’d be genuinely excited about the things we only seemed to do when we were racked-in, like having long talks, watching TV or taking naps. It seemed that when he had no control over a negative circumstance, he went on as if it wasn’t there.
Paul had mastered the ability to keep negative thoughts out of his head as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. There was this one prisoner who was always starting trouble and I remember turning to Paul and saying, “I really don’t like that dude! I don’t think I hate anyone, but that guy would be the closest. Ya know?” That’s when Paul said the most profound thing to me. “I can’t think like that Brian. I’m going to be here forever. This place is my home, so I’m going to make the best of it and focus on the good things. I just can’t afford to hate anyone, that only hurts me. You can hate him, though; it’s cool. He doesn’t have near as many good qualities as you do, so go ahead. You can hate him.” I smirked a little and muttered, “I hate you.”
I love Paul for who he is and the lessons I took from his example. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of that particular lesson. When someone asks me how I’m doing these days, my answer is always great or something similar. It’d be easy to point at my change in circumstance and say that’s where my sunny disposition comes from, but I’d like to think I’d choose to follow the admonition of Paul and be happy no matter what.
Brian Wood, of Layton, pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He served four years in the Utah State prison system before being released on parole on Jan. 2, 2018.