The difference between bitter and better

…is the direction you choose to take

Some people come out of the storm better
Some people come out of the storm bitter
The difference between the bitter and the better
is the compass of your heart
and the direction you want to go.
(Ant Clemons’ opening words to Better Days, performed for the inauguration with Justin Timberlake)

I entered a cold “winter” when I left the D.C. jail and was sent back into the federal prison system. I’ve spent most my time on lockdown, unable to make phone calls (I am allowed to talk only to my lawyer). That gives me a lot of time to think. And rather than tell you more about the “gray” existence here (and, really, in all the federal prisons right now), that song has moved me to focus on my thankfulness for all I’ve gained by going through this adversity: patience (from being forced to sit and wait for hours on end, often in shackles), resilience (just by surviving the storm) and appreciation (for all the love and support of a growing circle of friends, supporters and loved ones). I am using my struggles as a stepping stone to better days.

It’s difficult, but it’s so important to rise above the muck of our current condition/mental state. (I am quite aware that many in our country are struggling in myriad ways.) I’ve always had a strong will and indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. But until recently, these characteristics were rudderless, because they were based only on my credo of being a “man.” That ethos was essential to survive. (Rudderless is probably the wrong word, since my touchstone was my fight to protect my sanity and self-worth — a form of resistance, by demonstrating to my captors that I am human, that I will never let anything they do to me break me!)

Now, my spirit, my will, my fight, is tied into a cause that is bigger than me — this blog and the fledgling organization More Than Our Crimes I have launched with Pam (who publishes these posts and is the reason why I can tie in references to current events, like the inauguration). This is what sustains and grounds me, because it is connected to something tangible — including work that will continue once I am finally allowed my freedom. Today, I’m not just willing myself through time in defiance of my captors, to let them know that I can endure whatever they dish out and that I’m unbreakable. I am living with a real, meaningful purpose. I no longer have to prove my self-worth to myself or fight with the only thing at my disposal (my honor, valor, spirit, etc.) to get through.

Today, I know who I am! Everything I’ve endured and learned made me who I am today and prepared me for whatever future comes. And more importantly, now I have a more effective way to fight — my words. And increasingly, as you’ve seen from this blog, More Than Our Crimes will be a megaphone for other voices struggling to be heard, to make an impact — not just those who are recently released, but also those still behind bars.

We cannot allow captors and abusers to destabilize our lives by feeling sorry for ourselves; instead, we must use them as that slow us down so we have time to think, recalibrate and learn as we figure out the best way forward, around or over them.

Nothing drove this point home more to me than the last year. 2020 was supposed to be my year. I was given my IRAA hearing on Dec. 18, 2019, and as the new year rolled in, I anxiously awaited my freedom — sure that after 24 years, it was within reach. Crushingly, on Jan. 7, I was denied; it was just a dream. That experience has hammered home the point (once again) that things don’t always happen when we want them to or feel they should. Although devastated, I have used my hurdle to slow down, think, recalibrate and figure out the best way forward. I discovered I have a larger calling. If not for my denial, this blog would not have grown into what it is today, More Than Our Crimes might not have emerged, and my support system might not have grown so extensive. We need more voices from the inside with a megaphone. Now, I have a community and a mission into which I know I will walk when I leave.

I am sure that 2021 is “my year,” or rather “our year.” I know this work is what I am supposed to be doing and I encourage each and every one of you to come to the same the same recalibration as we continue but also come out of the destabilizing and often tragic time that has been the Trump years, the pandemic and the freshly erupting calls for racial justice. You’ve made that possible for me. Thank you!

Even as I grieved, I grew
Even as I hurt, I hoped
Even as I tired, I tried

While once I asked,
how could I possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now I assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail?
My adaptation of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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