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Dead Time & Alive Time

Malcolm X was a criminal. He wasn’t Malcolm X at the time—they called him Detroit Red and he was a criminal opportunist who did a little bit of everything. He ran numbers. He sold drugs. He worked as a pimp. Then he moved up to armed robbery. He had his own burglary gang, which he ruled over with a combination of intimidation and boldness—exploiting the fact that he did not seem afraid to kill or die.
Finally, he was arrested trying to dispose of an expensive watch he’d stolen. He was carrying a gun at the time, though to his credit he made no move to fight the officers who had trapped him. In his apartment, they found jewellery, furs, an arsenal of guns, and all his burglary tools.
He got 10yrs. It was February 1946. He was barely twenty-one years old.
The shameful American racism and the systematic legal injustices that existed at the time notwithstanding, even with today’s #BlackLivesMatter protests, Malcolm X was guilty. He deserved to go to jail. Who knows who else he would have hurt or killed had he continued his escalating life of crime?
So there he was in prison. Just a number. A body in a four-walled room for a home…and he was to sit in that cage for roughly a whole decade.
There are two types of time in our lives: Dead Time, when people are passive and waiting, probably hopelessly stuck in self-isolation and quarantine….and Alive Time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, like the Covid-19 situation, presents this choice: Alive time. Or Dead time.
Trapped behind the four prison walls that defined his home, Malcolm chose Alive Time. He began to learn. He explored religion. He taught himself to be a reader by checking out the dictionary from the prison library and not only consumed it from start to finish, but copied it down longhand from cover to cover. All those words that he’d never known existed before were transferred to his brain.
As he said later, “From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk.”
He read history, he read sociology, he read about religion, he read the classics, he read philosophers like Kant and Spinoza.
Later, a reporter asked him, “What’s your alma mater?” His one-word answer: “Books.”
Prison was his college. He transcended confinement through the pages he absorbed. He reflected that months passed without his even thinking about being detained against his will.
He had “never been so truly free in his life.”
Most people know what Malcolm X did after he got out of prison, but they don’t realize or understand how prison made that possible. How a mix of acceptance, humility, and strength powered the transformation. They also aren’t aware of how common this is in history, how many figures took seemingly terrible situations—a prison sentence, death of a loved one, a divorce or separation, a heartbreak, a bear market or depression, an accident – and through their attitude and approach, turned those circumstances into fuel for their later greatness.
Looking at the effects of setbacks in our lives; job losses, missed opportunities, lock-downs, reduced incomes etc. it would feel much better in the moment to be angry, to be aggrieved, to be depressed, heartbroken and despondent at large. When injustice or the capriciousness of fate are inflicted on us, the normal reaction is to feel disadvantaged, to fight back, to resist. We get overcome with the feeling: “I don’t want this kind of life. I want my life back…I want it my way.”
Instead, in the spirit of Malcolm X, think of what you have been putting off. Issues you declined to deal with. Problems that felt too overwhelming to address.
Dead Time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do. As they say, this moment may not be our life. But it is a moment in our life nonetheless. How will we use it? What will it define for us when we later look back at it?
How are you using it?
Malcolm could have spent those years becoming a better criminal, strengthening his external contacts, or planning his next score, but it still would have been Dead Time. He might have felt alive doing it, even as he was slowly killing himself.
That’s what most of us do when we fail or get ourselves into trouble. Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, we reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behavior that caused our problems to begin with. It comes in many forms; idly dreaming about the future, plotting our revenge, finding refuge in distraction, refusing to consider that our choices are a reflection of our character. We’d rather do basically anything else.
But what if we said: This unwelcome event is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be Dead Time for me.
In life, we all get stuck with Dead Time. Covid-19 and the almost forgotten lock-downs were pure Dead Time. The occurrence of Dead Time is hardly ever in our control. Its use, however, is firmly in our control. Make use of what’s around you. Don’t let stubbornness make a bad situation worse.
You’re confined to your house or apartment because you lost your job or have a bad boss? Not bad…but did you start the project you’ve been putting off at home or you’re busy numbing your mind with another episode of God-knows-what TV series?
You’re forced to work from home. Have you adapted and found a new way to get an edge or have you slackened off because nobody’s watching?
The right activities are always just as accessible as the bad activities. But choose wisely, because when the dust settles and life ramps back up, you’ll have to answer what will surely be the most popular question in your life.
What did you do during your Dead Time?

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