Once upon a time, there existed a bird with a broken wing. Singing out loud for healing, so as to fly once again.
Time seemed to stand still, while this bird sat painfully alone. Its own neighbors, looked the other way, while this birds song had no end, to its tone.
Little comfort came, through the sun or the rain. Just fear of dying alone, and in shame. That’s when the bird noticed a shadow draw near.
As I was walking in the prison yard the other day, I came across a bird with a wing broken, and in pain. As I got closer, the bird didn’t try to run away. Its song was for love, and an end to the pain.
I sat down with this bird. Showed it love. This got the attention of neighbors. I noticed the other birds began to sing this injured birds song.
The other birds too wanted someone to love. For to love, and be loved was indeed rare for this flock of birds.
As I was preparing to depart, the bird sat up and thanked me, by singing to me a beautiful song. As the bird sang its heart out, I embraced it.
It then transformed itself into a tiny mirror. Its injury was healed.
I looked into the mirror, and saw the bird smiling back at me.
Everyone knows of him. He’s the guy with the white beard. He’s in his late 50’s and still manages a pony tail that he can braid. Some guys are envious of his hair. He carries a comb in his back pocket like a kid from last century. He talks about his mom like she’s his best friend. She comes and visits almost every week, you know, just ask him. When he tells it, she’s his only friend.
Life has escaped him, forgotten him, but he tells himself it’s ok. He still has his mom’s kind love. But from time to time, he stresses about her health. He knows she won’t live forever. Then what? Who will care, then? His appeal to the court should come through any day now, then he can help take care of Momma. Lord knows she could use the help at her age. Those sharp attorneys just about have his final sentencing argument ready, from his understanding. Then he’s getting some of that time back. It’ll be over with for this separation from Momma. She really needs his help.
He’s been in prison almost 40 years for a vicious rape that happened after a hard night of drinking. He can’t begin to remember who she was or what even happened. All he knows of her young face are the brutal photos the police took. All he knows of how it happened was that they knew a few of the same people at the same party and he came on to her. He has no idea how or why things escalated to such an event. Not really. He was way too trashed that night. His memories don’t exist. All his information of what happened came from police reports he couldn’t read until months later, before his trial.
What he does know is she’s a success. She has been for a long time now. His momma told him that at some point. She graduated college, married a banker and has four kids that make it home for the holidays. He’s glad she turned out ok. He’s glad he didn’t go so far that he ended her life. He just doesn’t know why he hurt her or how he got to where he went with it, so violent and not himself. In the moment, he wasn’t what Momma raised. What he does know is he did something awful to that young lady. He also knows that she hurts somewhere inside today because of him. He still doesn’t know how to reconcile with himself or how to feel about himself over it.
It’s that time of day again. He has to get in line for the phone. He has his notebook ready in case the paralegal has any new information for him. The laws about sentencing change all the time and people get some time back for those court rule changes. It’s his turn, now. He dials the phone and waits. No answer today. Man, he was hoping he could talk to the paralegal today. He knows how busy his lawyer is, too. Momma needs him to have good news, though.
The sad fact is, the paralegal doesn’t answer because the lawyer working on his appeal hasn’t been in practice in over ten years now. All of his appeals had been exhausted decades ago. His 53 year sentence still stands. He stays hopeful for that appeal because he’s broken. He’s certain that he’ll help his mom soon because he’s broken. His life has escaped him because he’s broken. Maybe he crossed that line a long time ago because he was broken then, too.
In reality, Momma has been gone for a few years now, too. It was heartbreaking for us to see him fall apart when the prison chaplain told him. He’s paid quite a price for being this broken. He committed a crime he never could remember, and remembers things that quit happening so long ago. His mind has disengaged from reality years back and now it’s like this for the sake of his own salvation. He might live to see freedom someday, but probably not. No one would care anymore, anyway. All because he’s broken…
Human brokenness is a universal aspect of the human experience, right. I mean, we are all messed up a little. It’s the common denominator that links us all and levels the playing field to a certain extent. There are countless variations, but we all feel it with great depth, each one of us. The great American poet, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That is a simple yet profound way to frame the human condition, but it leads to so many questions, especially for the incarcerated.
Are the strong those who have never allowed their own brokenness to harm others? Or are they those who overcome their own brokenness despite having harmed others? One cannot come to prison for taking a human life without being broken mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and I don’t mean broken as an effect of incarceration. I mean broken as the cause of my violence, the very impetus for my horrible crime. The depth and reach of the type of brokenness required to take another man’s life during a physical altercation in which I was the aggressor must be pervasive and complete, leading me to wonder … does my brokenness break me? Am I so psychologically disintegrated that I’m incapable of truly overcoming my brand of brokenness in order to move forward and effectually impact the world in a positive way?
Of course, some broken things retain a degree of functionality, still able to do some good. Most people have heard the proverb about the woman with the cracked pot. The pot was depressed because it was unable to hold water. It slowly leaked as the woman walked home from the local well each day, and constantly compared itself to the pot the woman carried in her other hand which did not leak. One day, the leaky pot said to the woman, “You should discard me and get a new pot that functions as it was designed, like your other one.”
She responded to her broken pot, saying, “I’ve been aware of your flaw these many years, and I’ve used it to my advantage. Notice along your side of the path the abundance of flowers blooming in this desert, which could not be watered properly if you did not leak so perfectly.” The leaky pot looked and saw the beautiful variety of flowers along only one side of the path, the side on which it was carried, and was astonished. From that point forward, that leaky pot never felt insecure again.
On the other hand, that story, while comforting, remains somewhat of a fairy tale. Most broken things are discarded in favor of fully functional new things, things that function as they were designed. Household appliances, car parts, phones, these are all things that are quickly replaced when they cease to function optimally.
Yet, I am not a thing. Things are simple. I’m a complex human being, and for the first 23 years of my life, my brokenness manifested in ways that hurt others and negatively impacted my environment. I spread darkness, decay, and pain through my self-centeredness. The question that haunts me is … can a bad person become good?
However, I remain a man who took a life in anger. I’ll never be able to change that. A character that Ben Affleck played in a movie, Doug McRay, said, “No matter how much you change, you still gotta pay a price for the things you’ve done. So, I got a long way to go.” I connect with that sentiment so deeply, and I cannot help but lament the possibility that my past may disqualify me from ever being a good man.
I’ve worked extremely hard to become a better person, to achieve balance and reciprocation in my relationships, to appreciate and even celebrate the differences between myself and others. I’ve grown into a man who cares about the humanity and dignity of others, who understands that I’m not entitled to special treatment or to violate the rights of others in order to meet my own needs. I’ve learned the value of working hard to earn something and waiting my turn because I’m not more important than anyone else. I’ve increased my education level, my capacity for critical thinking, logical reasoning, and associative thought, my emotional control, and my spiritual understanding.
A good man is authentic, trustworthy, and loyal. He does not seek accolades. He helps others easily, and avoids doing harm whenever possible. He is reliable, honorable, and strong-minded. He is humble, caring, and teachable. He operates with integrity, carries himself with dignity, and treats others with kindness. He pushes back when pushed too far, but never looks for trouble. He stands up for the helpless, but understands when to remain seated. And perhaps most importantly, he takes responsibility for his actions, admits his mistakes, and offers a genuine apology when necessary.
I sincerely strive to uphold these ideals every day. Yet I fall short more often than I’d like, and I worry it’s because I’m irreparably damaged. I mean, it’s not just the fact that my violence removed another human being from this planet that is deplorable; it is the fact that I was capable of such an act.
I have been incarcerated for 18 years for something I did when I was 21-years-old, but I honestly do not believe I have paid for what I’ve done. How can I quantify the value of a human life? Was he worth 25 years? 50? I can never pay for the life I took. All I can do is use the actions of my past to shape the direction of my future. I can do my absolute best to make sure I strive to be a good man, readily admit when I’ve made a mistake, and purposely impact others positively, in one way or another, every single day. But I’m not sure it’s good enough.