by Ross Ulbricht
My future died that day in court when I was sentenced to life without parole. When I got back to the federal detention center, I did not go straight to my cell block as usual. This time, I was interviewed first to judge whether I was suicidal. I wasn’t, and thankfully, I convinced them I wasn’t, or I would have spent a few days in one of the dreaded “suicide watch” cells. I understand why they did that though. Lots of lifers are suicidal. There is no parole in the federal system, so life means your whole life. It is the same as a death sentence. It just takes longer.
At 29 years old, my own death had always been an abstraction, something far in the future. Now it was right in my face. As I looked around at the painted concrete and steel bars, a voice in my head pointed out to me, “This is it. This is it until you die.” I mourned the death of my future. I mourned the death of my freedom.
I never considered suicide. Early on, I resolved to put the thought out of my mind. For one, it would cause even more pain in those I love. (On top of the pain my imprisonment has caused them.) I would endure anything to avoid that. But even if all my loved ones were gone (and that’s very possible after a lifetime in prison), I resolved to go on living.
Deep down, I fear death. I fear it so much I don’t even want to think about it or acknowledge it. I pretend I have all the time in the world, that the days will just keep coming and coming as they always have. Normally they do just keep coming, year after year, decade after decade, and then one day, they don’t. Most people don’t prepare for that day. We don’t want to think about it. We cling to life until we are too weak to hold on. But coming to prison changed that for me. Suddenly the days didn’t just keep coming and coming, not like they used to.
Prison is a kind of afterlife. My life before — my life in freedom — feels like a distant dream now. My memories from before prison don’t even feel like my own. My family and friends mourned my loss of freedom in the same way they would have mourned my death.
But I am not dead. I have died without dying, and by going through this experience, I have been disabused of the illusion that my days are abundant. No, life is short indeed. I see that now. Every day I spend in this cage is a day lost, a day spent in death. I can fast forward in my mind the years and decades ahead of me until the day I breathe my last. I have met men who have been locked up continuously since the 1970s and 80s. That’s me in 2060, still here in the afterlife, in purgatory.
Then, I snap back to the present moment. The present always reasserts itself. No matter how much I resist or ignore it. The present moment is its own kind of death because each moment dies the instant it comes to be. This moment — the one right now as you read this — is both a birth and a death, something brand new that never existed before, and in the same instant, it is gone forever.
In that sense, I have died countless times already. Where is the boy who played in the creek with his dog and wanted to eat cereal instead of spinach? He is gone, and there is no getting him back. He is dead. My awkward teenage self is dead. My over-confident young adult self is dead. My self who wrote the words above just a moment ago, he is dead too. And your self who read them? Yep. Gone forever.
Even this notion of death is disturbing. I want to believe that the little boy is somehow still around, that I have continuity and permanence, that my memories represent something that still is. But this is not the case. Death permeates our lives. It is the constant cessation of what is to make room for what can be, for that next fleeting moment. It is only when I cling to these moments, to this illusion of a persistent self, that I fear death and struggle frantically to regain my life as it once was, to put the pieces back together.
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and stoic, wrote: “Imagine you are dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” No one makes it out alive. In the end, they put you in a hole in the ground and throw dirt in your face. But having accepted this, the question one must face is “now what?” Will you live this day as if life is just another thing to take for granted? Will you waste it bored and cynical? I never knew just how precious life is until I lost it. When I stop and look at myself, my life, the universe and everything, I am deeply humbled. I am grateful for what little I have left. I am grateful for this very moment.
Death is coming. Make no mistake. And in a thousand years (probably much sooner) all of your problems will be less than petty. They will be forgotten. All you know will cease. Let this sink in. Let I disturb you. Let it disturb the self-centered illusions you live in. You are dead. Now what?
That is up to you. Being dead, there is nothing to lose. Being dead, there is nothing to fear. Even (perhaps especially) for a man condemned to die in a cage, that feels a bit like freedom.