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Trade darkness for light

Last week a bird flew into my house, entering through a window which had been shattered during some construction work. The bird, a tiny desert sparrow, tried frantically to relocate the opening through which it had made its entry. I watched and listened to its desperate cries, as it crashed repeatedly into solid grass, attempting futilely to regain the world from which it had been separated so abruptly. I could not help but feel empathy for the trapped creature: I am a prisoner in a maximum security prison.

The bird's attempts continued until eventually one prisoner smashed out a succession of windows, attempting to provide the bird with an escape route. The sparrow flew to the edge of one such opening, perched there calmly, and considered the sky. He was still there in the morning; he would not leave.

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I thought about this a long time; every day after that as I sat in my cell I studied the bird, his short flights through the cellblock, his intermittent outbursts into song. His plumage, at closer inspection, was an intricate pattern of whites and soft browns, streaked with veins of brilliant yellow. His eyes were a bright ebony and extremely expressive. The bird's beauty presented a sharp contrast to the somber greys which color the interior of a cellblock. The bird, quite obviously, did not belong here. Yet he had chosen to stay, subsisting on crumbs provided by his human counterparts.

The sparrow's behavior began to suggest parallels to that of the prisoners with whom it now resided. Those prisoners, many of them, leave the institution daily, having completed their terms of confinement or been granted a parole release. Most of them -- the figures run between 80-90 percent -- return to prison after a short time. The phenomenon is called "recidivism;" it's a disorder composed of paradoxes and apparent contradictions, one the social scientists do not understand.

No human being enjoys prison, its discomforts and lack of freedom. Most prisoners survive the experience by living in their memories of the world, or looking ahead to the day of their release. At that point, each of them must make a decision: to live in the world or to live in a cell. Most prisoners, at least according to the statistics, chose to remain imprisoneD.

The "recidivists" have many rationalizations for their failures. To live in darkness, they say (particularly after you've accustomed yourself to darkness), is not difficult at all. You become conditoned -- there are fringe benefits. There is a lot you don't have to look at in the dark.If, for example, you have a blemish on your left cheek, you can't see it in a dark room. When someone turns the light on, you're forced to deal with it in some way, either by accepting it or overcoming it.

The advantages of light, though, generally outweigh those of darkness. The confusion occurs during the transition -- the movement from darkness into light and the accompanying distortions. It's not easy, sometimes, to make that change. It's a little, I think, like learning to swim. At one point in the learning process you have to "let go," to trust the natural buoyancy of your body and your developing muscles. It's frightening, of course, because you can never know for sure what the outcome is going to be.

Very few people, however, drown while learning to swim. Having that knowledge, always, is preferable to not having it, to sitting beside the pool and watching the other swimmers. By the same logic, living out in the world -- in the light! -- is preferable to living in the darkness of a cell -- and atching the world from a distancE.

There are many different kinds of prisons. Some of the most formidable are metaphorical:m emotional prisons we carry around inside us. Many of these are just as dark, and insular, as the physical prison in which I am active. Often we choose to remain inside them simply because it seems easier or because we are afraid to take the "risks" required to make a successful escape. These risks require courage above all, a commodity which too often is in short supply.

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As I typed this essay, I paused several times and looked out through the bars , looking for the bird which had inspired me to begin. The ledge below the broken window was empty; there was no birdsong in the air. I inquired and someone said he'd flown out the previous night. Through an act of will -- and some courage -- the sparrow had flown back into the light. I have faith in the bird. I doubt that he will come back.


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