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Illustration by John Adams

I look into the scratched plastic mirror and force myself to smile. It’s not that easy. Twenty years of prison pathos have taken their toll, and even before that, the frequency of my smiles hardly put me in danger of being called “Sunshine.” Staring at my blurry image, I try to convince myself that my uninspired grin doesn’t make me look like an idiot.

I drive my hands up in the air, bounce on my toes a couple of times and, in a tone that hopefully none of the other caged people can hear, say, “Whoosh!”

I look back at my dull reflection and notice that my smile has snuck away, so again, I grit my teeth and drag it back, silently slandering the authors of all those damned neuroscience and psychology books I’ve been devouring lately. According to them, optimists have a longer life expectancy than cynics. Even uglier is the fact that optimists suffer less illness and aging debilitation. As unfair as that is to cynics, I also think that not only do optimists get a longer dance, they probably have more fun doing it.

I also think that a new stigma has arisen in modern society that puts “the cynic” right down there with that of “the smoker.” So I’ve started giving an internal B horror movie scream of denial when I consider the possibility that I might be a cynic. I am not a cynic. I’m not! Don’t I impose arid but hilarious rubs on the most poignant tragedies? I try to anyway. If you fail to recognize it, that just means you’re a cynic who lacks my great sense of humor.

I’m a realist not a cynic, dammit! But is a realist really just a cynic in the closet? The realities of life, especially life in prison, aren’t much to smile about. The realities of my own life, closely examined, are far more likely to result in desolation rather than hope. Doomed to spend the rest of my life in prison for a crime I didn’t even commit, the effects of which seem to metastasize with every thought I give it. And I’m supposed to be optimistic?

I look back into the mirror and try again. Those sadistic social psychologists have discovered that a fake smile is possibly even more effective in promoting a good mood than thinking positive thoughts. Moving, clapping and making excited gestures along with saying things like “Whoosh!” can manipulate your body into believing that you’re actually enthusiastic. Apparently people are so gullible that we can fool ourselves into believing we’re happy. The research backs it up.

Being an optimist probably means avoiding particular thoughts to turn that frown upside down. I’ve got to find a way to gloss over the dark emptiness of my life, the way I imagine anyone still left with hope does. No privileged person, much less a prisoner, ever sees reality anyway. 

Our view is hindered by subjective experiences and faulty memories, tainted by our undulating motions and deceived by bias. Being realistic is but a cruel joke I play on myself. 

Why cling to logic and reason instead of painting a reality that’s less of a shit cake? Why debunk the fairy tales that others use to give themselves meaning? Why not create a reality that revitalizes me with hope, even if it’s artificial? I’m probably too skeptically far gone to join a cult, but surely I can filter out some of the colder realities that those damned optimists seem to manage. Isn’t the experience of life all about what we choose to focus on?

There’s far too much information for our senses to process, even in a cage designed for extreme sensory deprivation. I’m so picky about what I eat, why not the reality I choose to notice?

It doesn’t matter that my potential was destroyed by injustice, or that prison is systematically evil, or that nobody in this cruel world cares enough about me to come visit. Life is unfair. Dwelling on it only causes blisters of despair. There are blessings in every life, even mine.

As I write this, the morning sunlight has managed to permeate multiple layers of screens and bars, inking intricate patterns of shadow across the stack of paper on my crossed legs. It’s beautiful. Another deadly summer (deadly for Texas inmates anyway) is over and the sane temperature has soothed the tempers of guards and prisoners. It feels so good! The prison food they just shoved through my bean-slot is too vile to eat, but so what? I am gifted with protection from America’s growing obesity epidemic. I mean, if you’re not presently having your teeth torn out with a rusty set of pliers, that’s just one more thing to be grateful for, right? The positives are endless!

I give up the smile in the mirror with some relief and begin pacing the two-and-a-half paces of my cage, back and forth, back and forth. I talk softly out loud in rhythm:

I’m so happy.
I’m so happy.
I’m so unbelievably happy.
Oh, yes, I’m happy!

They say that affirmation helps, too.

For some insane reason, I want to have a longer and healthier dance. I want to smile even as my life ticks away in the penitentiary. I just wish I didn’t have to be so damned optimistic about it.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John Adams is a writer incarcerated in Texas.