You Can Damage the Cage, but You Can’t Hurt the Bird
By Don Staheli

Sometimes girls are the strongest of all.

My youngest daughter came home from school one day proudly proclaiming herself the arm-wrestling champion of the second grade. Strongest? No question about it. With a grasp that resembled a death grip and a look of fierce determination on her face, she had struggled to put down the hand of each antagonist, forcing them to an ignominious acknowledgment of her superior physical strength.

In other words, she had whupped every one of the kids who had dared to put elbow to the desktop.

Really, there weren’t very many challengers. Once she beat the first opponent, only the few who were stupid or overconfident or both were willing to step forward. Sometimes champions remain such mostly because no one questions their supremacy. It didn’t matter to her, nor should it have. She reigned victorious then and isn’t easy to beat even now.

But I guess the strongest girl I ever saw was actually pretty frail and would have been no match in an arm-wrestling contest. In fact, her memories of second grade are somewhat blurred and tend to be void of notable successes. Mostly she remembers fear, confusion, and a deep self-loathing. It was during this time of her life that she was being abused by her stepfather.

Millie (not her real name) was physically and sexually abused by her mother’s second husband. He was not a nice guy, but we will leave his punishment to the powers that be. Millie isn’t interested in punishing anybody. She knows what pain is like and doesn’t want to be involved in giving or receiving any more of it.

When I met Millie, she was a young adult woman trying to understand what she had done to deserve such treatment. In her confused and painful thinking, she was certain that he wouldn’t have done it without some provocation or enticement. He had told her it was her fault. And grown-ups are always right, aren’t they?

But Millie was strong. Even with that misplaced sense of responsibility for her traumatic circumstances, she was trying to fight her way out. She was trying to figure out how to live with the memory of the abuse and not be consumed by it.

Millie worked very hard to put her experience into proper perspective, to comprehend the true innocence of youth, and to assign blame to the real culprit. For some time, the best she was able to do was to label herself a victim. This was an important first step, realizing that she had been victimized and that it wasn’t her fault, but for Millie it wasn’t enough. She wanted freedom from the ongoing victimization of the terrible experience. She wanted to somehow let go of it completely.

In her quest for peace, Millie was able to come to a realization that (1) what happened to her was wrong, (2) it was not her fault, and (3) it didn’t need to happen again, ever.

That was actually pretty easy for her to figure out and to accept. She could see now that her stepfather had been more physically powerful than she and that her ability to resist had been minimal. It was not too difficult for Millie to place the blame where it belonged and to lose her fear that something like this would happen to her again. That was mostly an intellectual exercise. Those conclusions were quite logical.

It was harder for Millie to deal with the feeling that she was “damaged goods.” Even though feeling less to blame, she still felt dirty, a little crazy, and a bit out of control.

One day Millie was stunned by a thought-provoking passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. She read, “The soul helps the body and at certain moments uplifts it. It is the only bird that sustains its cage.”

Wait a minute! Millie thought. You mean there is a difference between the soul and the body? Do you mean to tell me that my body is sort of like a cage that surrounds the real me? If that is so, then could it be that he was hurting the cage, but that the bird was not damaged at all?

Of course! Of course! He could beat the cage, he could abuse the cage, he could even break the cage, but he couldn’t get at the beautiful bird inside. Even if he destroyed the cage, the bird would just fly free, beyond his ability to inflict any harm. He might frighten the little bird out of singing for a while, but he could not take away her song forever.

With this insight, Millie was liberated. She began to comprehend her dual identity. She started to understand that there is the Millie we all see and who moves about us – the “cage.” But there is also the Millie who dwells inside, out of sight, and is real, alive, and powerful – the “bird.” Her abuser may have been able to hurt her body, but the inside Millie is still clean and whole, with a beautiful song to sing.

Millie stopped calling herself a victim. No more labels. She ceased defining herself by what another had done to her. The abuse is something that happened to her, it is not her.

Millie is the strongest person I have ever met. Even though her cage may have been bruised, battered, and a little broken, she can still sing, like a bird, the beautiful songs of peace and love.

Bad things may happen to you, but they are not you.


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