Sometimes the truest freedom can only come when we claw our own way out.
I am waiting with my son at the bus stop when he first notices the bird.
"Look Mommy," he says, pointing a chubby finger up at the telephone wires above us. "That bird looks so funny."
I look up, squinting against a white ray of sun. A bird is perched on the telephone wires. He spreads his wings and then stops, then does this again.
"He's dancing," my son says in four-year-old innocence.
"No sweetie," I say. "I think something's bothering the bird." I take a few steps closer and shield my eyes with my hand. I notice a flutter of blue plastic and suddenly I realize what the problem is. The bird has the handle of a plastic bag hanging around its neck. The plastic bag is weighing the bird down and it can't fly. "What should we do?" my son asks, eyes wide, when I tell him of the bird's predicament. I shrug, wishing I could fix things, not knowing how. My son's school bus pulls up and I motion to the teacher who is bus monitor. He steps off the bus and I point up towards the bird. "What should I do?" I ask him.
He clucks his tongue, shakes his head. "Poor thing. Call security. Maybe they'll know what to do."
I kiss my son goodbye and dash back home, running down the three flights of steps to our apartment. I call security.
"There's a bird stuck on a telephone wire," I tell them. "It has a bag around its neck. What should I do?"
"That's not our jurisdiction," the man tells me. "Call Animal Protection."
The bag is getting tighter around the bird's neck. I can't bear to watch.
I know it will be hours or longer before someone from animal protection might come and meanwhile the bird is suffering. I run back upstairs and down the block. The bird is still there, this time fighting against the bag, its neck writhing back and forth. I wish the bird would just fly down to the sidewalk and then I could get rid of the bag. The bag is getting tighter around the bird's neck. I can't bear to watch.
I run back home and I call my upstairs neighbor whose parents are veterinarians. She has been known to save various animals in distress in our neighborhood. I describe the situation. "What should I do?" I ask her.
"I could tell you what to do for a cat," she says. "But a bird? I'm really not sure."
I pour myself a bowl of cereal but I can't eat. I'm beginning to formulate a plan. I run next door to my neighbor. She isn't home but her mother is there.
"Sandy, I need your help." I quickly outline the situation. "I think if we can coax it down we can cut the bag off of its neck and set it free."
"We'd need a sheet to catch the bird and keep it still," she says.
I know it's a long shot but I have to do something. We grab a sheet from my linen closet along with a pair of scissors. I take a packet of seeds just in case the bird is hungry. Then the two of us march up the stairs on a mission to save the bird.
When we get to the end of the block, we see the blue plastic bag fluttering on the ground, crackling like dead leaves. The plastic handle of the bag has the mangled marks of a long struggle. A bird soars with explicit freedom in the sapphire skies above us. There is no way of knowing for sure that it is our bird, but somehow I feel that it is.
"I guess that bird won't be needing our services," Sandy says, smiling.
I feel that I have also been set free and I breathe deeply with relief. While slowly walking home towards my bowl of soggy cereal, the profundity of the bird's ordeal becomes clear.
I thought that the bird needed us to save him, but my muddled attempts may have brought more harm than good. The bird needed to chew his own way to freedom.
We all need teachers and mentors, but nobody else can change a character trait for us.
Aren't we all a little bit like that bird? We wear our sacks of problems like bags tied tight around our necks, stymieing us and averting our ability to take flight. And we wait for salvation from outside -- from our parents, our spouses, our friends, our coworkers -- to cut those pesky bags off of our necks. But their efforts, as sincere and rooted in love as they may be, are often bumbling excuses for the help and love that only we can give to ourselves.
In the Ethics of Our Fathers we are taught, "If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" We are our own greatest advocates. We all need teachers and mentors, but nobody else can change a character trait for us. Nobody else can magically transform us into the people we long to become. That is entirely up to us. We need to learn to spread our wings and take flight even when encumbered by the "plastic bags" of life.
Just like that bird, sometimes the truest freedom can only come when we claw our own way out.