Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Life Lessons From a Convict

Three years ago, I walked 160 miles with a convict. As we took our first steps, he shared his first words: "It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured." We walked our miles in 43 hours over a span of five weeks. During this time, I learned numerous life lessons from the convict. The convict is Gregory David Roberts.

The convict, Gregory David Roberts.
(Image from: www.goodreads.com)

Gregory is the author of Shantaram, a novel that tells the story of a man named Lin. Lin, like Gregory, was a heroin addict and bank robber. Lin, like Gregory, escaped from an Australian prison. Lin, like Gregory, fled to the streets of Mumbai and lived life as a fugitive in the Indian underworld. At a lengthy 944-pages, I opted to listen to the audiobook so I could enjoy the novel while on foot. As I walked miles-and-miles of country roads listening to Lin narrate his story through my earbuds, I came to know and admire Gregory.

Gregory David Roberts was introduced to me by a friend of mine, Greg, of Backpacking the Beartooths fame. (To be clear, Gregory is the convict; Greg is my friend.) Knowing that I would soon be traveling to India, Greg suggested I read Shantaram, as the novel brilliantly relays the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the country. Furthermore, the novel spurs a sense we do not recognize in the western world: a sense of humanity, as detected in our hearts and souls.

Upon finishing Shantaram, I was curious to learn more about the man who had lived the life of Lin. After all, in the 43 hours we spent together, I had grown reverence for Gregory. While I'm not typically drawn to the knife-wielding, heroin-addicted types, I was deeply drawn to this convict. The universe dealt him his experiences in the underworld so he could learn about love, and fate, and the choices we make. In the most beautiful way, Gregory transformed his brutal past experiences into the most profound and wondrous gems.

I turned to the Internet with the intent of learning everything I could about Gregory. Alas, my search was brief. I learned that Gregory had gone into seclusion. Though his book brought with it a following, he did not wish to be in the limelight; he wanted to live a quiet life with his family, his thoughts, and his pen. Gregory requested that all photos, interviews, and the such be removed from the Internet. Having learned this, I felt as though Gregory had died; I felt as though he had been taken from this earth too soon.

Before disappearing, Gregory had published a sequel called The Mountain Shadow. Equally wordy in length, I was hoping to absorb the book once again via audiobook over a series of walks. As no audiobook existed, I postponed reading Gregory's second novel until I had a large swath of time to delve into an epic read.

Fast forward to the era of sheltering-at-home. With the coronavirus pandemic came a large swath of downtime, perfect for reading The Mountain Shadow. I had downloaded the book on my Kindle, but, as is the case for most e-books, I was having a difficult time getting into the story. Greg (not the convict) offered to mail me his copy of The Mountain Shadow. As soon as the book arrived, I immediately turned to page one and began reading.

I was so happy to be immersed once again in Lin's world...in Gregory's world. I was grateful to be able to expand my repertoire of life lessons from a convict. Some of the lines from The Mountain Shadow that resonated most loudly for me were these:

"We are collections of things that we find and experience and value and keep inside ourselves, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, and that collection of things is what we finally become."

"I want to be one hundred per cent inside my own now. I want to be the moment, instead of just watching the moment pass."

"Pain can be deferred, but never denied."

I finished The Mountain Shadow nine days later, on April 28th. Upon finishing Gregory's second novel, my curiosity was once again piqued. I returned to the Internet, thinking perhaps I might find a fascinating tidbit about Gregory captured in some musty, web-laden corner of the net. I was absolutely shocked to find that just a few days earlier, on April 23rd, Gregory had emerged from his years of seclusion. On April 23rd, a post magically appeared on Gregory's website. The post read: "Six years ago, I went into spiritual seclusion. I came back to find the whole world in seclusion."

During Gregory's years of seclusion, he had gone off-grid. He lived under his own self-imposed, socially-distanced, stay-at-home order during which he searched for his spiritual reality. His April 23rd post, the first since he emerged from his seclusion, was about Covid-19. With the aim of consoling those in seclusion from the pandemic, Gregory offered ways that prisoners cope with their isolation. His post continues:

"I was a prisoner for 10 years, and on 3 continents. 
I did 2 years of my sentence in solitary confinement, as a punishment for escaping. 
It’s one of the ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic that some hardcore prisoners are now in a position to be counsellors to the people who sentenced and confined them – justifiably, in my case, because I was guilty and deserved to do time. 
That said, we’re all doing time right now, in one way or another, and there may be some help in the lessons learned from inside the experience of imprisonment and solitary confinement."

Though brief compared to his 900+ page novels, the post is filled with heartfelt insight and wisdom on surviving our coronavirus confinement. Even if you don't have the time or interest to commit to reading Gregory's novels, I encourage you to read his Covid-19 post. To do so, visit The Lost Love Bureau.

Then again, perhaps the greatest lesson requires no reading at all. Despite confinement, first in a maximum security prison and later in self-imposed spiritual seclusion, a convict emerged stronger in love and faith. With our hearts and intentions in the right place, we, too, will emerge from our confinement -- whatever that confinement may be -- stronger in love and faith. 


  1. Always be cautious of a charismatic convict.

    1. You suggestin' you wouldn't go on a bike tour with Gregory?!?!?

  2. ‘Though I am not typically attracted to knife wielding heroin addicts” is my favorite sentence in this post.

    How ironic that he would surface when the rest of the world went underground . And he blew my mind with the fact those in prison would be the experts to help those who are struggling with shelter in place...

    Great post and glad you got to ‘know’ him!

    Thanks for cleaning up ant Greg confusion

  3. Guess I won't read the 900 page novels, it took me a week to read this post :-) I am going to check out his Covid-19 post.

  4. Came here because I can't believe there is no audio version of his second book. The narrator for Shantaram was superb.

    If you're looking for more information on the author's life: His real name is Gregory 'Doc' Smith. You'll find a few old newspaper articles about his prison break by googling "Gregory * Smith" "Pentridge Prison".

    1. The narrator was superb indeed! Thanks for the additional info.


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