Death Be Not Proud
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee,
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
– John Donne
Near-death experience stories come and go. People describe their heaven-like experiences with characteristic bright light and warm fuzzy feelings. Their stories seem to get more media traction than any who happen to experience a nightmare descent into hell.
Conceptualize what heaven could be like. It’s easy. Lounging by the eternal pool eating every sort of fattening food without a care of a calorie. Suppose for a moment, though, that isn’t the only existence beyond death. I would suggest there are those among “we the living” who haven’t a near-death experience to go on, but know well what hell could be like. Their horrified imaginations have captured it vividly while their hearts haven’t missed a beat nor their brains a synaptic impulse.
Ask William Blake. He is currently a prisoner in Elmira Correctional Facility. He’s been in solitary confinement for 25 years in what is called the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), an abbreviation for Special Housing Unit. In his thoughtful essay from prison he writes of conditions both in his physical confinement and in his mind…
I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.
Human beings are social creatures. Perhaps this is what God was giving attention to in the beginning when He addresses Adam’s solitary condition and states, “it is not good for the man to be alone“. Men have lost their minds being locked up in isolation. I believe that immaterial part he refers to is where the spirit of man lives. Perhaps that slow or rapid descent of sane men into madness is the path upon which the spirit of man diverges from a glimmer of hope into the darkness of absolute despair. This is where the philosophies and devices of man are ephemeral. But if Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, if He is who He says He is, then His is a hope most precious and incorruptible indeed.
Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. What you call boredom would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I’d likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven’t seen a TV since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are the mice and cockroaches that infest the unit, and they’re not very lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken away you’d find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.
Strip away all the busyness of an average person’s daily life, all the natural comforts or the every day distractions, and I would suggest prison solitary confinement reveals the pitiful dependence any human being has upon the Creator God because it uncovers the true nature, effects and consequences of a deprivation of hope.
Perhaps this is what the biblical passage of Proverbs 20:27 addresses as it says, “The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, Searching all the innermost parts of his being.” An individual can think themselves self-sufficient in their environment so long as there is even a measure of freedom and choices. Individuals with a modicum of reasoning in that sort of environment might discern the nature of the Gospel and understand their place before the cross of Christ, but there is much to keep an individual’s focus off themselves. Take an individual out of a social environment, leave them to themselves, they may still find the Saviour, but it becomes problematic as to how Proverbs 20:27 develops. Anyone can easily slip into the descent of insanity. As a man descends into madness how does he, how can he then respond to the Gospel?
No matter what the world would think about things that they cannot imagine in even their worst nightmares, I know that twenty-five years in solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, moreso than death in or by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the head, or even immolation could possibly be. The sum of the suffering caused by any of these quick deaths would be a small thing next to the sum of the suffering that this quarter-century in SHU has brought to bear on me. Solitary confinement for the length of time that I have endured it, even apart from the inhuman conditions that I have too often been made to endure it in, is torture of a terrible kind; and anyone who doesn’t think so surely knows not what to think. I have served a sentence worse than death.
From Mr. Blake’s position, one can understand how he would think solitary confinement with its cruel treatment of criminals is a fate worse than death. Suppose, on the other hand, solitary confinement, even with all its darkest conditions, is just a sampling of what follows after death. No one really knows, but the sure difference between the dead and the living is one of involuntary condition. A living, breathing person is a mercy from God.
In the biblical story of Job, after all of his calamities and sufferings, after his questioning of God’s ways and God’s answer, he responds thusly:
Then Job answered the LORD and said, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.” – Job 42:1-6
Submit to the only One Who exposed life beyond the grave and put death to an open shame. Death has no more sting, and the grave has no victory.