In my own personal context, I have been to Hell, and survived. And you can too.
Here, let me explain.
We all read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy in high school, or at least the first part, Inferno. If you’re not familiar with Inferno, it is the first of three epic poems written about the afterlife – Inferno is the first; Inferno is about a journey through Hell. As Dante wrote, Hell is not so much one place as it is many places – nine levels (or circles) descending to the icy cold depths of Hell where Satan resides. But contrary to popular conceptions (and Biblical implications), the depths of Hell are not consumed by fire and brimstone, but rather is ac cold and frozen desolate entombed wasteland – a cave where Satan is frozen for eternity. Satan has three faces, and in the mouth of each face, he chews for eternity on three people: Brutus and Cassius (who betrayed and killed Caesar) and Judas Iscariot (who betrayed Jesus Christ).
Apparently betrayal is the worst of the sins, from Dante’s perspective.
As Satan eternally chews on the suffering souls of these three traitors, he also continues to flap his demonic membranous wings, trying to escape his frozen encasement, but the wind from his wings only serves to freeze his entrapment even more. Dante created a “Catch-22” for Satan; if Satan stops flapping his wings, perhaps the ice entrapping him would melt, but to escape, he must fly out of it, but the wind would re-freeze the ice.
But like I said, I honestly believe I have experienced my own contextual Hell. I’ve written about this experience in great detail in “The Abyss.” If you have not read this, please do.
Inferno is not only an epic piece of classic Italian poetry; it is also a semi-recent novel by Dan Brown, carrying-on the adventures of Robert Langdon. And next week, Tom Hanks will once again cross the silver screen as Robert Langdon (just as he did with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) in the film version of Inferno. Tom Hanks is my favorite actor (well, he’s tied with John Cusack, but still), so I’m quite excited to see this movie.
But here’s the thing: I read Inferno when it was first released – when I was in prison. I saw an advertisement for it in USA Today and asked my wife to have it sent to me in prison, which she of course did, and when I received it, I absolutely could not put it down. I loved it. And now, after prison, I will get to see the film version. Thus, I read the book as an inmate, I will see the film as a free man. And this notion has given me the perfect understanding as to why Dante decided to make Inferno the first part of The Divine Comedy rather than the finale.
My memory of reading the book is encased in the context of prison. But that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Rather, it gives me such a genuine appreciation for where I am (and who I am) now. I have escaped the Hell of my past and can now look back and appreciate and cherish where I am. If Dante’s tour of Hell had come after his tour of Heaven (Paradiso), he would have found himself longing for the paradise he could no longer experience. But instead, Dante’s journey began with Hell, then ascended through Purgatory (Purgatorio) and finished his journey in Heaven where he could look back at the difficulties he’d overcome, finding a deep appreciation for Paradise.
Figuratively speaking, a person cannot truly appreciate Heaven until they have a Hell to which it can be compared. Happiness cannot be appreciated without first knowing sadness. In order for good to be good, there must be bad. Make sense? The problem is, people all-too-often take the “good” or the “happiness” or the “Heaven” for granted, and only begin to appreciate them when the “bad,” the “sad,” or the “Hell” happen to come along.
When times are good, stop for a moment and appreciate your happiness. Compare the good to the bad and be thankful you’ve persevered. Be appreciative of the now rather than longing for the then. You’ve overcome some major obstacles in your life to reach this point. Be proud of yourself. Know that you’re stronger today than you were yesterday, and tomorrow, you’ll be even stronger than you are right now.
And when times are bad, stop for a moment and learn something. Understand why the days are difficult and push forward. There is a life lesson to be learned in every single step we take. If we ignore those lessons, we will struggle with the same problems day-after-day. But with every lesson learned – every experience gained – we only grow stronger. Take comfort in knowing the valleys of life do not last forever, and no matter what, You’ll Be Okay.
The Inferno will pass.