Jack Jones is a convicted murderer on Arkansas’ death row. He was supposed to be killed March 16, but there was a last-minute stay based on a legal challenge to the execution protocol. So now he waits until the method of execution is settled and a new date is set.
Jack Jones is also one of those convicted murderers who have undergone a profound religious conversion. In his case it’s a Buddhist conversion, but deep religious commitment is not unknown on death row, and crosses over all religions. When I use the word “conversion” I don’t necessarily mean that Jack converted from one religion to another (although he did). I mean that the focus of his life dramatically shifted, the kind of shift that Baptists call being born again and Jews call baal teshuvah.
Samuel Johnson once remarked that the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind, so we shouldn’t be surprised that people on death row are capable, no matter what their crimes, of this kind of deep shift. The surprise, rather, is that so few of us do it.
Because we are all under a death sentence. We are all born empty-handed, and we will all die empty-handed. Jack Jones lived for months knowing that he would die at 9 p.m. March 16, and suddenly he didn’t. Maybe in a few months he’ll again be told when he’s supposed to die, maybe not. The main difference between Jack and us is that nobody tells us the exact hour and day we’re supposed to die. We might think we sort of know, but we don’t. Someone dies suddenly, someone dies young, and we say “she died before her time.” What could that possibly mean?
I do not want to make Jack into a saint. He isn’t. He did terrible things. Because he did these terrible things, he now lives an unimaginably difficult life. But he said something interesting that got passed around in an e-mail: “Sometimes I read, but there is no book as good as this reality.” If a man on death row can say this, what about us?
Don’t misunderstand. “There is no book as good as this reality” doesn’t mean that our lives are always filled with beauty and love and wonderfulness. Our lives are also filled with pain and difficulty. And still, nothing is as good as this reality. Why? Because it’s real, that’s why.
We try to slip away from reality. We water it down, we disguise it, we try to argue with it. But it can’t be avoided. We can put on rose-colored glasses, turn up the volume on our iPod, spray room deodorizer all over the house, but reality won’t go away. True spiritual practice means becoming intimate with this reality, whatever it happens to be.