When I sat on death row for 20 years my favorite game to play was the “what if…?”
This is an exercise that most people engage in, but none more so than prisoners. No inmate feels like they belong in prison. I’m not talking about a question of innocence or guilt but rather the stark reality that I had done something so wrong that the consequences of it took away my freedom, my family, and my dreams.
I was captain of the football team. I broke many track and field records. I got good grades in school and even got a scholarship to college – how did it come to this? I found it hard to believe that I had sunk so low.
I would spend countless hours lost in thought wondering what would’ve happened had I not pulled the trigger. By then I had married with a good job, a beautiful family, and a nice house with a white picket fence, or who knows, I might’ve made it to the NFL and played for the Miami Dolphins.
Either way, those options were better than what really happened. Landing in prison put a stop to everything I had imagined or dreamt for myself…or did it?
It’s easy to daydream about a more productive and happier life if I was able to go back in time and reverse my misfortune. Changing the past would inevitably change my future, but the question is: to what? I imagined myself being successful but right now I could also be homeless, crippled from a car accident, or dead. It also stands to reason that if I changed the exact moment that I committed the crime. later on down the line I still would’ve done something that would’ve taken away my freedom, or even my life.
People live according to who they are, so the trick isn’t to change the moment but rather to change the person. The person makes the moment, not the other way around, and who you are at that precise second will determine the success or failure of that moment.
Our life is made up of numerous decisions that we must decide on a daily basis. Everything from what to eat to what we want to wear to work, or even if want to go to a party that night or stay home and study for the math test at school tomorrow.
What we decide to do will give insight to who we are as a person and the amount of integrity and values we live by in our life. Ralph Waldo Emerson drove this point home when he said, “Who you are screams so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear what you’re saying.” So if I was to go back in time to that exact moment, without knowing the outcome of my actions, I would sadly make the same mistake 100 times out of 100. It was another harsh reality that I had to face and own up to.
Eventually I realized that we’re all responsible for our own life, every bit of it and, if you’re the cause of your own failure and unhappiness, you are the problem. But the good news is, if you’re the problem you’re also the solution. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Life’s golden rule to success dictates that in order to be great you have to start to be great, not only in action but also in living according to your guiding principles and values.
This is a tough road to walk and failure will be a constant companion, but the idea is when you fall, to get back up and try again, because you cannot be great if you demand of yourself to be faultless.
Bad decisions and mistakes happen and the struggle that ensues from them is one of life’s clever mechanisms through which we are forced to expand, develop, learn, and progress. Mistakes are portals to change. They’re a chance to break old tendencies and change negative habits so that something new can take its place. This is what the maturation process is all about. It’s not easy, but it is essential.
If we take a honest look at our life and the road we travelled to determine not only where we’ve been but also what we’ve done, we can clearly see that we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are without coming the way we came, mistakes and all. There aren’t any other roads or shortcuts. The landscape ahead is littered with fragments of people who have tried. Life requires it to live it in its entirety, and that means to experience the good and the bad, and the ups and downs. This is the day that will eventually mold us into the person we are. And who we are is actually nothing compared to who we are, potentially.
Prison is not a defeat, although some would like to think so. But they don’t realize that most defeats are nothing more than temporary failures. Don’t look back on the road that could’ve been, make this road the one where you can look back on one day and be proud. And with each day passing, always remember to do something positive and worthwhile that your future self will thank you for.
And there’s no better thanks than self-appreciation for not giving up, staying on the right path, and reaching your potential despite overwhelming odds. Your life is God’s gift to you, and what you do with it is your gift to him.
Frederick Paine was on death row before his sentence was overturned in 2009 and he was re-sentenced to life without parole for the murder of a cab driver in a robbery.
Frederick Paine #32945
PO Box 359
1200 Prison Road
Lovelock, NV 89419