The prisons we build for ourselves

He’s a good model for a boy growing up.

Fiercely independent. Dependent on no one and nothing. Willing to take risks, kick ass and get his ass kicked for what he believes is right. He knows how to hunt, how to fight, how to read men and how to craft a plan that gets the job done. He has known nothing but instability, uncertainty and danger.

He owns nothing, owes nobody.

I’m describing Jack Reacher of course.

In the beginning of the second Jack Reacher novel, Die Trying, a woman called Holly is kidnapped. She was grabbed because her Dad is important. High up in the forces hierarchy. Stratosphere high.

She’s imprisoned in Montana. In a bare room, with no windows, nothing she can use to escape. The walls are packed with dynamite. If she tries to escape, she gets a bullet. If someone assaults the compound to free her, a stray bullet will blow her up.

Holly didn’t have a choice. She was snatched off a Chicago street and led, at gunpoint, into the back of a truck. Someone constructed that prison especially for her, just to keep her there.

But we do.

We build our lives action by action, deed by deed. So why are so many of us content to construct our own prison? Why do we build them, willingly step inside, lock the door and complain about our circumstances?

The prisons we build for ourselves are not in some remote outpost with dynamite filled walls. They come in the shape of commitments we don’t want to keep, possessions we don’t need, people we don’t love, work we don’t want to do, obligations and debt we struggle to endure.

All these things shackle us more completely than any set of handcuffs. Yet as we age we build ever more elaborate and ever more effective prisons for ourselves.

Why? Why do we submit to our own imprisonment? Is it fear? Is it cowardice? Is it because we don’t know any different? Is it because we’ve been led astray?

Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe it’s none.

I’m fortunate. I’m young. I don’t have any crushing debts or commitments. But all around me, I see people slaving away for something they don’t really need, chasing something they don’t really want. Pursuing an aim or an ambition, not because it’s a product of deep thought or long contemplation, but because they don’t see another option. Because they can’t fathom an alternative.

But the ability to see options and alternatives isn’t determined by their existence. It’s a factor of your capacity to imagine them. The good thing and the bad thing about this life is that there are no rules. We are constrained only by the boundaries we impose upon ourselves. This applies to our minds and to the life we create for ourselves.

When you realise that, you change.

You don’t have to work in a conventional sense. You realise success is whatever you define it as, not what everybody else tells you it is. You realise that you have vastly more options. You realise that it’s now possible to make a living being unashamedly, unapologetically, you.

You realise that instead of constructing your own prison cell you can dictate the terms of your own freedom.

If that means you have to turn your back on the conventional trappings of success, fine. Because at least you’ll be free.