There was once a successful businessman who had everything – a beautiful wife, adorable children and a big house in which they all lived happily. The pride of his life though was his exotic songbird which he kept in a cage and fed delicious titbits when it entertained his guests.
One day the man had to go on a journey far to the south and he asked his wife and children what presents they would like from abroad – they asked for fine silks, honeycomb and clockwork toys. Finally he asked his songbird if he would like him to bring anything back.
“I wish only for one small favour.” The songbird replied.
“Anything!” his master declared.
“Just this – when you see my cousins in the trees in the place you’re going to, please tell them about my conditions here.”
“Are you sure? I could bring you back a fine jewel-encrusted mirror or dried tropical fruit?”
“No, just this, thank you.” The songbird replied and the man went away feeling a little disconcerted but resolved to carry out his pet’s wishes.
The man made his trip safely and carried out his business to satisfaction and spent his remaining time there buying the presents his family had requested. Finally, he went to a park and saw some birds in the trees that bore a remarkable resemblance to his own songbird. He called up to one of them and told them about how his own bird lived in cage and sang for him.
But no sooner had he finished speaking than one of these exotic birds trembled on its perch and tumbled to the ground and ceased to move. The man held his head in grief and the incident quite spoiled his trip.
He returned home and greeted his wife and family who were delighted at their presents but he couldn’t share their pleasure as long as the forthcoming encounter with his songbird remained on his conscience. Finally he found the courage to go down to the garden.
“Well?” his songbird asked and, hesitantly, the man told him exactly what had happened. The song bird listened intently, then trembled on his perch and fell to the bottom of his cage, dead.
The man was now beside himself with grief and confusion. Weeping openly, he opened the door of the cage and carried out his beloved songbird in his hands. No sooner had he done so, however, the songbird returned to life and flew up to the branches of the nearest tree and let out a shrill of joy at finding its freedom.
The man scratched his head in wonder and eventually asked:
“Okay, you win. But tell me please, what was in the message that contained this trick?”
The songbird looked down at him with pity and said:
“My cousin in Africa showed me that it was my beauty that kept me in the cage. Were it not for the delight of my singing voice you would have lost interest long ago. I had to give up that life in order to become free.”
[The image of dying unto oneself is a common Sufi theme, in particular dying unto this world and the things that we hold precious in order to experience the true freedom of living in grace. In one sense this story is about the self-limitaion of vanity but at a deeper level there’s the notion that as long as we’re in love with ourselves we will always be in a cage of our own making.]
The Essential Rumi from Coleman Barks