A man was sent to prison for seventy years. He spent his days standing on tiptoe, trying to look out the window his cell, through which he could jus catch a glimpse of the sky.
Looking at the sky, he thought about what it would be like to be free. In his imagination he used to go on long journeys. Sometimes he went into the future and thought about what life would be like after he had finished his time in jail. Some of these thoughts were pleasant. After all, freedom looks wonderful to anyone who does not have it. But sometimes his imagination would take him to places that terrified him. Life in prison certainly has its drawbacks, but at least you do not have to worry about feeding yourself or how to organize your day.
Looking into the future, the prisoner was obsessed with “what ifs.” He worried about growing old and being lonely, about getting sick and having no one to care for him, about being scorned or rejected. Often he feared he might not get all the benefits of life that so many other people seemed to have. Feelings of failure, fears of not living up to his potential – whether in his own eyes or in the eyes of people whose approval mattered – formed a major part of his outlook.
Looking into the past was not much more promising. There the predominant thought tended to be “if only” – if only he had not pursued the course of action that had led to his imprisonment. He experienced a certain amount of nostalgia, which gave him feelings of warmth and happiness, but most of the time he felt only regret.
Thus, he spent his days dreaming and remembering, fantasizing and worrying. He felt alienated when he was with others, and completely alone when he was not.
It happened that the day the man was due to leave prison, he had a heart attack and died. In due course, he arrived at the throne of God.
“Where were you when I needed you?” he demanded of God.
“I longed to see you,” replied God, “but every day when I came to visit you in your cell, you were not there.”
From Meletios Webber, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, Ch. 5, “The Sanctification of Time,” p. 79