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The Personal Responsibility of Unjumbling the Mind: Crafting a Safe Haven

“An old man on a park bench stares with envy,

At a couple with their children on their knees,

While across the park a young man is caught by the police,

Stealing for a habit he must feed,

And if not for love, I could be one of these.” – Johnny Cash, If not for Love, on MAN IN BLACK

When the Man in Black first sang those words in 1971, he was likely thinking about his wife, June Carter, and the life he might have had had he not met her. Cash struck a low point in his life, and by 1967, an addiction to amphetamines had taken him to his limits. Space, time, and the rock star lifestyle pressed in like walls of a prison cell, and after a dramatic arrest for drug-related charges, the many facets of his collided as it all came crashing down. Cash retreated, and began to define his own space. He turned his life around, sought redemption, and found his way out of an endless downward spiral.

Cash often cites his wife, June, as the beginning of the change. June was there for him in his time of need, and this was the moment Johnny Cash chose love over the never-ending spiral toward his own inevitable demise. Yet as he states time and time again in interviews and books that he has written, the moment he began to turn things around came from a personal commitment, and a personal choice. This is where our journey begins; the moment we choose to make this commitment to ourselves.

Choice is one of the most important aspects in anyone’s journey towards self-love. While many stories one might hear begin with a moment in time, something that was so fundamentally life-altering that it placed someone’s entire life on a different trajectory, making the choice to begin the journey typically isn’t so dramatic as that. Sometimes it’s a dream, and sometimes it’s a nightmare, an experience so flawed and extreme that it forces someone along, though I would guess for a lot of people, myself included, the moment is usually as small as waking up one day and realizing that something has to change. Yet there is a moment, often characterized as the moment. One that someone who is suffering won’t soon forget, if ever.

Cultivating personal space and a mental safe haven grows out of this moment, as the moment is the foundation on which their journey is built.

In two separate autobiographies, Johnny Cash relates a story about his darkest moment, one in which he crawls into a cave he’d found just off his property on Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee. It was his intent to crawl into the cave and wait for the tides to rise during a storm, so that his body would never be found.

For most of us, the moment that comes is not as dark as that. Yet the storm raging inside the mind of someone trying to find the path to self-love must be something akin to that stark image of Cash heading out that morning. Dark clouds loom in the distance, and in the face of a coming storm only the afflicted can ever really see, a choice is made. That choice determines what is still standing when the clouds break and the sun is shining once more.

Johnny Cash crawled out of that cave after a time. He chose to live. While some never reach a moment as dark as that, the journey to self-love and better mental health begins with a similar choice. Seeking help, maintaining a strong network of friends, family, and a sense of stability is extremely important. While unjumbling the mind on the journey to self-love is a personal responsibility, it is equally important to have a support system in place. Yet even more important is the choice, and the first step one takes on that path. It is a choice one has to make for themselves. No one can make that choice for them. You must make the choice, but the journey does not have to be taken alone.

Another important element of the Cash parable is that he had the benefit of something that many of us struggle to find: space.

Cash had the old house on Old Hickory Lake. What does someone do when they aren’t a multi-millionaire living a rock star lifestyle?

This is where the journey becomes a little more complicated.

I had my own moment one day when I was hiking through Calico Basin in Red Rock Canyon. I was in the midst of one of the darkest, and most stressful moments of my life. I was working twelve to sixteen-hour days at a job I hated, and trying to navigate the landscape of life as a “non-traditional” college student. My personal life was beginning to fall apart almost as quickly, but let’s explore the idea of self-love and psychology first.

Once you make the decision to take a journey towards stronger self-love, the first step, as with any journey, is evaluation—evaluating life, what is available to you, the spaces that exist in your life, both physical and mental. It is important to remember that space can be both a mindset and a place you can occupy.

Amid pandemics, crashing economies, and a virus that shook the world to its heels, the cultivation of space becomes even more essential. In an article for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, K.B. Little defined personal space as “…the area immediately surrounding the individual in which the majority of [their] interactions with others take place; it has no fixed geographic reference points, moves about with the individual, and expands and contracts under varying conditions.”

I like this definition, because it acknowledges that space in relation to the individual is continually fluctuating, and is rarely ever static. As our environments change, so does the space that we inhabit; though I would argue that this is just as applicable for the mental space. This thought process continues in an article by Gary W. Evans of Cornell University for the Journal of Urban Health, in which Evans states “personal control, socially supportive relationships, and restoration from stress and fatigue are all affected by properties of the built environment.”

While the core of the Evans article focuses on mental health and space in relation to architecture, I would argue that this is an important metaphor for the importance of self-reliance and the responsibilities to ourselves. As Evans suggests, personal control is first and foremost in the cultivation of space. As we walk through the world, and our environments, it is important that we begin to acknowledge our place in these worlds.

Self-reliance begins with the mindset that you take into your physical spaces, and each affects each other in turn. In his novel Hannibal, author Thomas Harris cites the book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Jonathan D. Spence), and in honoring space, the formation of a memory palace in the traditional form is an excellent strategy to begin your journey.

The question comes to mind almost immediately is what exactly is a memory palace?

A memory palace, or the method of loci, as it is known in psychological terms, is an ancient mnemonic device that involves the visualization of spatial locations designed to increase one’s own ability to memorize various different items.

How does this device apply to honoring space and the personal responsibility therein?

Image: Calico Basin in Red Rock Canyon - Picture by Shane McIntire

On a cool Thursday morning in November I had a rare day off from both work and school, and decided to try to make the most of it. I wanted to get as far away from the city and the world as possible, so I headed out for Red Rock Canyon, a place I had always enjoyed before everything went sideways.

I turned off the road into Calico Basin. I wasn’t really sure why I selected that path, or why Calico Basin called out to me, yet it did. I parked, and headed out onto the nearest trail. It wasn’t long before I headed up into the canyon, and saw it looming high above.

The only thing I knew for sure is that I wanted to see what was at the top.

As the hike turned into a climb, I thought a lot about what I come to know as personal space, and what a healthy mindset truly means. This space at Calico Basin, would become the base of my memory palace, and the beginning of a journey that is ongoing to this day. Suddenly, I could visualize this space in mind every time the world became too much, “a place to go away inside myself,” as the writer George R.R. Martin once wrote.

The following days, months, and years from that moment were not perfect. I still have ups and downs, moments of depression and anxiety, yet as a close friend of mine recently said to me when talking about my journey towards stronger mental health and better self-love, “it’s your journey, you’re the one doing it!”

The moment I reached the top of Calico Basin and felt the sun shining down on me, it felt a bit like what Cash must have felt like crawling out of the cave on Old Hickory Lake. For the first time in a long time, I felt alive in a way I had not felt in quite some time. And being out of range of any cell tower, where school and work could not touch me, I felt free.

More importantly, I realized in that moment that spaces existed where I could feel completely free. I just needed to go out and find them. It was my responsibility to find them. A responsibility to those who cared about me, even when I couldn’t see it, and perhaps even more importantly, it was a responsibility to myself.

I made the choice to live.

Written by: Shane McIntire


Cash, J. R. (1971). If not for love [Song]. On Man in Black [Album]. Columbia Records.

Evans, G.W. The built environment and mental health. J Urban Health 80, 536–555 (2003).

Little, K. B. (1965). Personal space. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(3), 237–247.

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