“It’s a brand new day. It is ours to live and enjoy, to make something of or not, and then to be lost forever.” — Ross Ulbricht, from prison.
Every time Ross Ulbricht’s name appears on my Twitter feed, I pause for a moment. My eyes lift off my laptop screen. I glance around the room and out the window. There’s a whole world out there. And any time I want, I can get up and check it out.
Meanwhile, Ross Ulbricht is stuck in a prison cell, somehow sending tweets out into a world he’ll likely never see again.
I would never log into Twitter seeking wisdom or spiritual insight. Exactly to the contrary, I love it for the rage and unexpected wit. In point of fact, I follow Ross Ulbricht because he’s a wildly polarizing character in American politics and culture. He’s the Dread Pirate Roberts, creator of the world’s most infamous dark web drug market. He’s a cautionary tale against libertarian fanaticism. He’s the hero of Nick Bilton’s true-crime thriller American Kingpin.
But when I stumble upon a Ross Ulbricht tweet, I see kindness, sadness, patience, and acceptance.
Ross’s website the Silk Road trafficked $1.2 billion in drugs, guns, and poisons over the span of just a few years. In 2015, for the crimes associated with the Silk Road, Ross was handed a double life sentence plus forty years without the possibility of parole.
I don’t know how you psychologically cope with prison life, especially when your sentence is forever. It seems inevitable that some sort of acceptance will set in. But as Ross’s tweets have shown, acceptance of a fate that is the ultimate worst-case scenario doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It can be positive and beautiful. As he tweeted: “Acceptance = ease, joy, possibilities.”
In Zen practice, the concept of acceptance is fundamental. Author Domyo Burk, writing for Pathos.com, summarizes the practice of acceptance and subsequent non-attachment: “Essentially, it means we stop resisting the way things are, and then we act in the world without tying everything back to our sense of self.”
So, you’re stuck in prison for the rest of your life. That is how things are — accept it, says Zen practice. Then, detach from your sense of self as you act in the world.
From what I can glean from Ross’s prison tweets, his Zen-like acceptance has kept him from becoming bitter and angry at the world. On a personal level, I love encountering his tweets for just this reason. I’m virtually never at ease in life, and I’m sure most people can relate. I don’t know how many times each day I think, “I need to get out of this apartment. I need a new job. Why am I still living in this city? I need a vacation. I need to move.”
It only takes one glance at a “power of acceptance” tweet from Ross, from prison, to remind me how great I have it. If he can find peace and acceptance from his prison cell, surely I can find it here in my apartment.
Beyond acceptance, I also find inspiring levels of hope in Ross’s tweets:
In his own case, Ross’s level of hope occasionally rises to the level of excitement. When the Free Ross sign was posted in Times Square, I could feel Ross’s excitement myself:
How can you be accepting of your situation and still be hopeful for change? Is this a contradiction? I don’t think so. You can have a mindset of acceptance while still realizing that you have more to experience and more to give to the world. There are times when your life is constricted by your mental state. Zen practice can help with that. But no Zen practice can truly set a person free to experience the world as they were meant to — not when they’re stuck in prison, locked away from friends and family. As Ross tweets, “Life is always ready to thrive if it’s allowed to.”
When I pause to reflect on a Ross Ulbricht tweet, I always find myself grateful and appreciative of the life I have, of the possibilities that are open to me. But I also feel frustrated at society for keeping this guy, and thousands of others like him, locked up. Obviously, Ross was charged and convicted of serious crimes, but it seems to me that his biggest mistake was committing serious crimes in a society that’s committed to punishment over rehabilitation.
There are a finite number of humans on this planet, each existing for a fraction of a moment in geological time. Each human mind exists independently as the most complex thing in the known universe. I fully understand the rationale behind keeping dangerous people out of society. But I also know that most people age out of crime. As the New York Times notes:
“Research by American social scientists shows that all but the most exceptional criminals, even violent ones, mature out of lawbreaking before middle age, meaning that long sentences do little to prevent crime.”
I also know that, eventually, we will look back with shock and embarrassment at how people who are incarcerated were treated throughout history. Just as it’s obvious that certain Zen practices are positive for mental health, it’s also painfully clear that our unenlightened past has cursed our society with concepts like vengeance, retribution, and the punishment of “evil.”
We’re just now starting to move away from the death penalty and the life sentence as coherent tools of punishment. We’ll inevitably start to move further in the direction of compassionate rehabilitation. Eventually the concept of “two life sentences plus forty years” will seem completely absurd. As Ross wrote in a letter on his seventh birthday in prison: “Love does not throw life away.”
I can’t think of a better thought to end on. It may even be worth taking a moment to let your eyes drift off this webpage, to look out your nearest window, and to meditate on Ross writing from prison:
“Love does not throw life away.”