Recently, I have experienced life as difficult and troublesome. The temptation is to feel sorry for myself, to sink into apathy, to make excuses. So this conversation as much for me as it is for you. Let’s begin.
I have in mind a man whose accomplishments include:
- becoming a respected ornithologist;
- making important contributions to avian pathology;
- running a successful business;
- publishing a successful book (Diseases of Canaries), ten years later publishing an updated edition (Stroud’s Digest On The Diseases of Birds);
- gaining respect and some level of sympathy among ornithologists and farmers;
- writing two manuscripts: Bobbie, an autobiography, and Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons; and
- studying French near the end of his life.
Now, here is my request: please paint me a picture of this man – what kind of education did he have, where did he live, who did he live with, what were his circumstances, what was the style of his life?
Let’s listen to Ellen J. Langer, Professor of psychology (bolding mine):
“Even the most apparently fixed and certain situations can become subject to control if viewed mindfully. The Birdman of Alcatraz was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of reprieve. All the world was cut off from him; one empty, grim day followed the next, as he stared at the flock of birds flying outside his window. One morning a crippled sparrow happened into his cell, and he nursed it back to health. The bird was no longer just a bird; for him it was a particular sparrow. Other prisoners, guards, visitors started giving him birds and he learned more and more about them. Soon he had a veritable aviary in his cell. He became a distinguished authority on bird diseases, noticing more and more about these creatures, and developing more and more expertise. Everything he did was self-taught and original.
Instead of living a dull, stale existence in a cell for forty odd years, the Birdman of Alcatraz found that boredom can be just another construct of the mind, no more certain than freedom. There is always something new to notice. And he turned what might have been an absolute hell into, at least, a fascinating mindful purgatory.
– Mindfulness (choice and control in every day life), Ellen J. Langer
It occurs to me that when I am feeling sorry for myself, it behoves me to get present to that which is so for every human being: existential freedom. Freedom to chose how I show up and travel in life – no matter the circumstances. Talking about circumstances, the Birdman of Alcatraz spent the last 54 years (of 73 years) of his life in prison. And of these 54 years he spent 42 of them in solitary confinement! Compared to him, I find my life to veritable heaven – and there are no excuses for not exercising choice and control over the course of my life. Including and importantly, the attitude/stand that I take in life.
And finally, it is worth getting present to the circumstance, being, and accomplishments of Jean-Dominique Bauby.