Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six
By Michael Lambrix
I would argue that the transformative power of a simple mirror is the foundation for the evolution of self. Looking deep into the image staring back at us, we are compelled to scratch at the scars of our own shattered souls and confront truths we want to avoid. From the beginning of time this has been true. I can only imagine a primitive version of humankind finding himself crouched down at the muddy edge of a pond looking deep into his own reflection and questioning who he was and wanted to be. It was that self-examination that brought about evolutionary change.
I was barely 16 and out on my own, far away from any “home” I might have had and struggling to survive on the streets while others my age were still in school. I found work with a traveling carnival and slept at night in the tents along the midway that housed the games and concessions. I was not alone, but only one of many “midway misfits”. After the show shut down each night and silence blanketed the darkened grounds, we would emerge from the shadows and congregate in our groups, each chipping in what we could to buy whatever alcohol or drugs might be available. As we each indulged in our vice, the past each of us had run away from would be forgotten. We had survived another day.
One particular cold winter night outside of Chicago, as our little band of midway misfits broke up, each to stagger away each in their own direction, I sought warmer shelter. I ventured into the “House of Mirrors.” I was drunk and stoned, but the surreal experience came to define that time in my life. Although I knew each mirror was deliberately made to reflect a distorted image, as I stared I found that it was I who was so damaged and all I wanted to do was run from that reflection of who I was.
It would take another 16 years before I found myself in a solitary cell on Florida´s infamous Death Row, looking deep into a simple plastic mirror at the man I had become. I could no longer pull away. I had already been condemned to die years earlier and even come within hours of being executed (please read: “The Day God Died”). But it was only then that after years of refusing us any form of mirror under the pretense that mirrors posed a “security threat”, that suddenly we were allowed to purchase and possess simple plastic mirrors. For the first time in many years I found myself staring at the image looked back at me.
That was over 20 years ago. The experience motivated me to write a widely published essay “To See the Soul – a Search for Self” (published in Welcome to Hell by Jan Arriens as “A Simple Plastic Mirror”) in which I struggle to confront who I was and who I want to become after realizing I didn´t like the man looking back at me and I’d wanted to become something better. That mirror contributed to changing who I was, giving me direction in my journey through life. I continue to stagger along the path toward my still unknown destination, as the uncertainty of my fate remains undetermined.
But what I didn´t know then, and do now, is that with each step of the journey we continue to grow. To paraphrase the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us can only make us stronger.” I came to embrace the belief that each experience is an opportunity to grow, and that I alone possess the power to determine how the misery inflicted upon me might affect me. And being condemned to die at the hands of man did not deprive me of who I wanted to become.
The poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling became my inspiration as I found myself cast down into an environment of lost souls. Ones consumed by the hate I would come to know well, because when all else fails, hate finds a way to prevail. Each day is a struggle to not allow it to possess my soul, too. And when I do find myself becoming influenced by the destructive darkness of hate, I again read these words:
If you can keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs and blaming it on you –
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
but make allowance for their doubting, too –
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
or being lied about, don´t deal in lies –
or being hated, don´t give way to hating,
and yet don´t look too good, nor talk too wise –
If you can dream and not make dreams your master,
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim –
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
and treat those two imposters just the same –
If you can bear to hear the truth you´ve spoken
twisted by knives to make a trap for fools;
or watch the things you gave your life to broken
and stoop and build ´em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss;
And loss and start again at your beginnings
and never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
to serve your turn long after they are gone;
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
except the will whish says to them “hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes or loving friends can hurt you,
if all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
with sixty seconds worth of distance run;
Yours is the earth and everything in it,
and which is more, you´ll be a man, my son.
Even under normal circumstances, few reach the point in their lives at which they are compelled to confront who they are, not merely accepting that they can be something better, but taking it to the next step of making the conscious effort to evolve into an improved self. For most of us, we are leaves fallen into a stream, our destiny by defined where the water might take us with little effort spent changing its course. Each decision along the way is contained within the boundaries of the stream as if John Calvin´s definition of pre-destiny (a tenet of the Presbyterian faith) dictates the direction of our life, each option (“free will”) limited to that small world we live in.
If a normal life can be compared to flowing peacefully down a stream, then prison life would be like being cast over a cliff, upon raging rapids, violently cutting its way through steep canyon cliffs. Unable to escape nor float downstream, every second of every day you must struggle not to sink and even one moment of weakness will be your last.
Death Row is no different. Each of us is kept in continuous solitary confinement, but we are still swept toward our own destruction in those same white-water rapids. Most become so caught up in keeping their own head above the water that they no longer search for elusive pods of calm water hidden in the eddies along the way, and their own survival comes at the cost of dragging others down in their own attempt to rise above.
As the passing years would patiently teach me, after long ago looking into that plastic mirror and making the conscious decision to become a better man than I was, that the image remained incomplete. I couldn´t have known that by choosing this particular path I would find myself repeatedly tested. Accepting myself being cast down into an environment consumed by misery and hate, each day I had to find the strength not to become part of the very thing I didn´t want to become.
But in this world, I was expected to be a “convict.” Conforming to an abstract set of values that, while generally written in stone (i.e. – mind your own business, don´t rat on others, be true to your word, etc.), were still subjectively defined by those around you meant that when tested, the choice not to respond as expected would result in a perverted form of peer pressure. In the eyes of others, you were reduced to something less than a “convict” and in here, anything less than a convict makes you a target.
But as long as a man continues to define himself by what others think, he can never be his own man. This place is its own hell, and I find myself trapped in a world where doing the right thing is often the wrong thing to do. I find myself precariously balanced between those two conflicting worlds, each pulling at me as I hang above an abyss threatening to consume me. I am not alone. I know of many others who struggle daily to be better men, yet give into those raging rapids and become what they perceive to be a “convict.” And for that, their lives in here become easier, but their inner struggles become harder.
Many years ago I thought in my ignorance that by looking deep down into theplastic mirror I had discovered my true self. But just as when I found myself alone in that “house of mirrors,” I know now that what you think you see in a mirror is not necessarily a true reflection. It becomes a distortion of what you want to see. People go into the “House of Mirrors” expecting to see a distorted image.
Now I look into a mirror knowing that when I do, the reflection will be altered as I consciously scratch away at the scars of a shattered soul. And it took me many years before I scratched away enough to start to confront the past that formed me into who I was.
When I wrote “To See the Soul – A Search for Self,” I didn´t realize just how pathetically superficial that self-examination was. I only saw the reflection I wanted to see at the time. It was enough to know I didn´t like the man I was and that I wanted to become something better.
For most of my life I never talked about my childhood or family life beyond the grossly distorted surrogates I created in my own imagination. I heard it said once that those who didn´t have a life before prison create one. Crack-heads become self-proclaimed drug lords, pimps become players and killers become “convicts.” To run with the big dogs you had to be willing to become one of them. But few dare to scratch beneath the surface of their own scarred souls and until they do, they can never hope to evolve into something more than what they are.
The path I choose to journey down is a solitary one. Often it alienates me from those I live amongst. When confronted by a perceived wrong, such as someone “disrespecting” me, or another form of transgression in this world, I am expected to respond with violence. Anything less makes me appear as a “coward. ”Those who remain determined to be seen as “convicts” can never understand that for me and others, being labeled a “coward” is preferable to a “killer.” It takes a conscious decision to turn the other cheek and not be reduced to the kind of person we’ve struggled so hard not to become.
I find my own refuge in books. If I could, I would give every prisoner a copy of my two favorite books…Dante´s “Inferno,” which provokes a lost soul to contemplate the consequences or our actions, and Victor Frankl´s “Man´s Search for Meaning,” which through profound truth teaches that within each of us is the strength to not simply survive even the most incomprehensible atrocities, but to overcome them.
As Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one´s own way….. “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation … when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
I no longer keep my mirror taped to my wall. Now I keep it tucked inside my Bible, so that as I search for strength in the wisdom of the ages, I have it to look into. And it rests alongside my favorite quotes from “Man´s Search for Meaning”.
Knowing that I live in a world in which in which hate prevails in the absence of love and spreads like a cancer, I find my journey defined by the pursuit of a tangible sense of “love.” It begins with love of self. One cannot love oneself if he doesn’t like himself, and one cannot truly love another until they´ve first embraced the love of self. Again, to quote Victor Frankl:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret – that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Few can begin to comprehend the depth of misery inflicted upon those condemned to death under the pretense of administering “justice.” Day after day, month after month, year after year we are relentlessly beaten down by the inescapable reality that society has found us unfit to live. We are cast down into the bowels of a beast devoid of mercy and compassion. Each day is a struggle to find the strength to hope.
Our artificial environment has been methodically structured to break both body and soul, to erode all sense of hope. To alienate any pretense of love until all that remains is the flesh they seek to kill. And few possess the strength, much less the motivation, to rise above it rather than become one with it.
But again, to quote Victor Frankl, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by a lack of meaning and purpose,” and “those who have a “why” can bear with almost any “how,” as in some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
I found my “meaning” in that simple plastic mirror so long ago, and have tried to stay true to the path I chose to follow. That doesn´t mean I haven´t stumbled and even fallen along the way. I would be the first to admit that I am far from perfect. But it’s not about being perfect. It’s about striving to become something better than I once was. And that in the many years since I found the strength to look into that first simple plastic mirror, I´d like to think I have become someone better.
My journey is coming to an end. I know I will soon be put to death. Knowledge of this weighs heavily on my soul and I fight not to be overcome by the gross injustice of my conviction and condemnation.(please check out: www.southerninjustice.net)
But as I look into the mirror, I realize the uncertainty of my fate remains irrelevant, because in the end, nobody gets out alive. We are all born condemned to die. And perhaps for the purpose of discovering who I was, and had the strength to become, it was necessary for me to follow this particular path. I know that had I not been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death, I would never have had the opportunity to find myself in the simple plastic mirror, and subsequently discover that strength within myself that made me a better man.
I continue to scratch at the scars of my own shattered soul. Scars remain, but with each scratch I come to understand them better, and finding strength to grow in spite of an environment intended to suffocate growth. I have found my meaning. Through the reflection staring back at me. Even when all else fails, love will prevail.
NOTE: If you would like to read about Mike´s “actual innocence” case, please check out www.southerninjustice.net
If you would like to sign a petition requesting clemency for Mike, please do so at www.save-innocents.com
Click here to read a recent story on Mike and his case
|Michael Lambrix was executed|
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017
Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six