“A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of a backyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life the eagle did what the backyard chickens did, thinking he was a backyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
“Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird far above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.
” The old eagle looked up in awe. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked.
” ‘That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,’ said his neighbor. ‘He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth — we’re chickens.’
“So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.” *
I read this story by Anthony DeMello many years ago when I was much younger. Today I struggle to read it without being saddened by the feeling that I’ve lived a “chicken little” life. I don’t mean to belittle chickens, who are good birds in their own right, but it was never my dream to be a barnyard chicken, and the point is that we were not meant to live like them. But how do we live out our inborn greatness, the truest and best humanity? How do we come to recognize what we are at our core and how to live out that identity with integrity in the world?
Sometimes people either run away from their power and betray the possibilities within them, or they grasp for power and greatness by the most virulent means. Either way is sad, a great waste of human potential; but the latter seems terrible. One thing I know in my heart: Every living creature is created with a certain greatness, human beings not least of all. Our greatness isn’t made of small-mindedness, low expectations, careless indifference, or impotent inaction; we are not “barnyard chickens.” But neither is our greatness as human beings made of aggressive grasping that diminishes those around us, or of violence that abuses them. Abusive behavior gathers to itself a certain kind of power — but nothing that approaches greatness or achieves what our souls hunger for.
I say all this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the violent hatred we’re finding in people like the ISIS jihadists who brutalize the weak and swagger with “power” before the world. I see in them the same swagger we often see in violent gangs and lawless people who walk many American streets, only written larger and more threatening to far more people. What do they want but to be strong, to not live as chickens in the world. Maybe they believe they can do that by making everyone around them cower and cringe. Surely, for some who are drawn to that life, the desire to be big and strong and right is a driving force. (Haven’t we all experienced a similar desire when we were little and feeling oppressed by those who were “big and strong and always right”?)
But it seems to me that the aggressive, violent, arrogant actions of those who would make themselves strong by killing or diminishing others is far removed from the greatness that is our human inheritance and from true strength — much farther removed than the humblest, meekest barnyard chicken. Surely we were meant to live something more than a passive, small life without courage or joy or power. But it’s also true that we were meant to become much more than violent bullies and killers of others’ humanity in our quest for power and greatness.
We were born neither for violence nor for impotence, but to live our lives as people carrying the image of the Divine around inside us — not some of us, but every one of us. We were born to reflect something of the beauty of God into the world and, yes, to let something of the divine power flow through us.
Yes, when I look at deMello’s barnyard birds I think that some people do settle too easily and stay too long in a prison they were not meant to inhabit. Then there are those who try to escape the prison someone has put them in through aggression. But some live their lives fully without either giving up or lashing out destructively. They stretch their wings and transcend or transform the things that limit them, in the process expressing the truest human greatness. Two paths lead to poverty; one to greatness of soul.
We all face the same choice: to decide who we are, what we are meant to do in life (cluck and cackle, or fly), and how we’ll go about it. It wasn’t the barnyard in de Mello’s story that made the eaglet’s life small; it was his inability to recognize who he was and what he was capable of; it was his believing in a lie and failing to try his wings.
Among other things, God sent his son Jesus to raise our sights and stir our hearts to a deep desire and a lofty hope, to enable us to see what it means to be fully and truly human, and to give us the means to live that way whatever the circumstances. He also came to deliver us from bullies and tyrants and killers of souls – both those that live within us, and those “out there.”
May you find your wings today, feel the wind beneath them, and live your joy. May your life express all the beauty and strength God has given you. And may the Holy One bless you…
* Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, NY:Image Books/Doubleday & Co., Inc., p. 96