The Wise Old Man, the Young Boy and the Little Sparrow

The Power of Choice and Self-Determination

I recently heard a story about a wise old man, a young boy and little bird that I thought was very insightful.  Since it was my first encounter with the story, I did what comes natural these days and Googled the title to see if the story has been told before or whether this was an original piece.  Not surprisingly, the story has been passed down over the years and told in many different variations.  Taking that as a license to re-tell the story for myself, here is my version and reflections of this timeless story:

In a small village there lived a wise old man to whom everyone turned for guidance and advice.  One day, a young boy decided he would confront the old man with a question that he knew the old man would not be able to answer correctly.  His plan was to find a little bird and hold it cupped in his hands hidden from sight.  He would then approach the wise old man and ask him to guess what he had buried in his hands.  If the old man answered it correctly, he would then ask him the zinger – whether the bird alive or dead?  If the old man said the bird was alive, the boy would crush the bird with his hands and kill it thereby proving the old man wrong.  But if the old man said it was dead, the boy would open his hands and let the bird fly free demonstrating at last that the old man was not as wise as everyone thought him to be.  So the boy ventured off and found a little sparrow that fit neatly within his hands.  As he approached the old man, the boy said, “wise old man, can you tell what I have in my hands?”  “Why of course I can,” the old man responded without hesitation.  “From all the small feathers clinging to your jacket and pants it is plain to see it is a little bird that you have cradled in your hands.”  “Ah, that is so” the young boy exclaimed, “but is the bird alive or dead?”  The old man paused for a moment then rubbed his chin in contemplation of his response.  Looking the young boy in the eyes, the old man replied in a soft tone “whether the bird is alive or dead is in your hands my child. The choice is yours.”

I like this story for its simple truth that ultimately we are in control of our lives by virtue of the choices we make and how we respond to events, even though at times it seems we have little or no control over what is happening to us.  It’s easy, of course, to lose sight of that truth when we are embroiled in events happening all around us like the loss of a loved one or friend, health issues, career challenges and financial setbacks.  It’s hard at times to see the path we need to follow amidst all the brush and undergrowth that obscures our ability to see situations clearly and with a long term focus in mind.  This is when consulting with professionals can help since they can provide us with a more objective view of our circumstances and help guide us to the path on which we need to be.

The challenge I see is when people turn to professionals (in my case an attorney) to be the “solver” of their problems and in doing so absolving themselves of the personal responsibility for solving their own problems.  People who feel victimized by the events in their lives and carry with them a real sense of hopelessness and helplessness, believing the answer lies outside of them.  Some attorneys will assume the “solver” role, either because they are unsure of where their role begins and ends, or simply due to their own inner need to “fix” people’s problems.  Either way it is an unhealthy dynamic that stunts the client’s ability to deal with an issue and move on with their lives.  A good experienced attorney will recognize this and begin taking steps early in the representation to empower their client and help them begin to assume responsibility for solving their own problems. I am amazed by the transformation I see in some people when they are empowered to confront the issues they are facing in concert with professional guidance, advice and support.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, in his classic book Man’s Search For Meaning, tells us that the last of the human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  Yet many of us are so quick to divest ourselves of this precious freedom and the only real gateway to true contentment, opting instead to wallow in self-pity and doubt to the point where we feel helpless and hopeless, believing the answers to be out there – somewhere. Sorry folks, there is no “somewhere.” As this simple story reminds us, what we make of our lives is our choice – a choice we hold in our hands.

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