Freedom to Escape
The warden paid a visit to Prisoner 1023388. She looked ill, but comfortable, behind the bars in her striped prison uniform.
“You’ve been confined a long time,” the warden told her. “But I’ve got some good news.”
From inside her cage, the prisoner replied, “Am I getting out? Finally?”
“Do you know how long you’ve been with us?” the warden asked.
“A long time,” she said.
“Years. Do you know how many years you’ve been here?”
“No,” she said. “But it seems like a long time.”
The warden made a note on his clipboard.
“Am I getting out?” the prisoner asked.
“It’s possible. And not that difficult,” the warden said. “But it’s up to you.”
“I desperately want out,” the prisoner said. “I am in such misery. I need to see my family and friends again. I want to embrace them. I long for some lively and meaningful conversation. I need to breathe some fresh air. I want to wade in the warm, salty sea. I want to celebrate birthdays and Christmas like a normal person.”
The prisoner’s eyes emptied as she fell into herself, swept away in the soothing stream of all she might do with her newfound freedom.
“And what else?” the warden asked.
“I want candy and cake and wine. I want to go to a theater with red, velvety seats. I want to dye my hair blonde and wear high heels again. I want to read a magazine that’s not 10 years out of date. I want to pet a cat again. And drive a car really fast. I want freedom,” Prisoner 1023388 proclaimed.
“Then you can have it.”
“How?” the bewildered prisoner asked. “After all this time, how?”
“We have decided you’ve spent enough time imprisoned that, by now, you should have changed. We’ve given you plenty of time and solitude in which to contemplate the decisions that placed you here. You’ve been given time to think about what you are and change from the person who got you here.”
“I believe I have changed,” the prisoner said.
“Yes, most believe they’ve wizened and changed,” the warden said. “But most haven’t.”
“Please, no more preaching. Just tell me about this way of my escape,” she pleaded.
“There is a brief moment every year in which you’ll be afforded the opportunity to leave. It only happens once a year. And the opportunity only lasts a few seconds. It is a date and time awarded to every prisoner who’s served enough time. Every year the prisoner is given a date and time of escape that is uniquely hers.”
Prisoner 1023388 asked excitedly, “When will mine be?”
The warden gave Prisoner 1023388 her date and time for escape. He explained that for a few seconds on that particular date and time, the gates of the prison would be open for her to leave.
He went on to explain, “Now that I’ve given you the details, I will not mention them again. It is up to you to be prepared on your date and time. Should you fail to be present, you will lose your opportunity to escape for another year. And I will never again remind you of this opportunity unless you ask about it. If you ask, I shall tell you, but I will never again – without your provocation – remind you of what you profess to want.”
“Want? You mean, my freedom?”
“That is what you say,” the warden said. “That is what you believe.”
“Yes,” she said. “Of course, I want my freedom. More than anything else.”
“I have given you the details. Now, before I leave, is there anything else I can do for you?”
Sometimes a prisoner asks the warden to write down the specific date and time for her opportunity to escape.
“No,” Prisoner 1023388 said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to be left alone now with my visions of what it’s going to be like when I finally have my freedom.”
The warden excused himself.
Days and weeks and months passed. Maybe even years.
Then, one day, Prisoner 1023388 asked to speak with the warden.
“What seems like a long time ago, we spoke about my release,” she reminded the warden from inside her cell.
“Then why am I still here?”
“Because you failed to escape. You’ve squandered every opportunity for gaining your freedom.”
“I suppose I’ve forgotten.”
“How could you forget something so important to you?” the warden asked.
“I’ve been so consumed by all the visions of what I’ll do with my freedom that I’ve forgotten when I’m permitted to escape.”
Coldly, the warden said, “Well, that is unfortunate.”
“The righteous thing would have been to remind me,” the prisoner asserted. “A simple reminder would have cost you nothing. By failing to remind me of how to attain my freedom, you have essentially taken it from me. You have denied me. In fact, I believe you enjoy my misery. Otherwise, a simple reminder would have been in order to relieve me of the sorrows of my imprisonment.”
“Obviously, you have learned nothing in your time with us,” the warden said.
“What do you mean?”
“I made it clear there’d be no reminding unless you asked to be reminded,” the warden said. “I made that clear, and you understood. I made it clear that the responsibility for your escape would be yours. In response to your initiative, we would have fulfilled our obligation to you. In fact, we’ve still met our responsibility, even though you’ve shown no initiative. At the appointed time, we’ve been present to open the gates for you. We were there, while, on each day of the year in which you’ve been afforded the opportunity to escape, you have persistently been absent. We’ve fulfilled our end of the bargain. We’ve done everything we can for you, short of awakening and depositing you outside this prison.”
“Well, it is hard keeping track of the days inside this prison. Each day seems the same, so it is very hard keeping track.”
“Yet, you have nothing else to do but keep track of the days.”
“On the contrary, I spend most of my days and evenings studying scripture. It is not as if I do nothing.”
“Yes. And what good has that done you?”
“My prayers comfort me through all these long and lonely days and nights. And, I can recite many virtuous verses from The Holy Book, verbatim.”
“Alright. You can recite them, but what do they mean?” the warden asked.
“They mean what they say. What else could they mean?”
“Will you repeat after me?” the warden asked.
“Repeat what?” the prisoner asked.
“Cogito, ergo sum,” he stated.
She repeated, “Cogito, ergo sum.”
“Good,” the warden said. “Now, please tell me what it means?”
“I can’t,” the prison confessed, before crying. “I do not understand the language.”
“Perhaps you only understand the language of mimicry and recitation and not the language of true thinking or understanding,” the warden said.
The prisoner continued to weap.
“Why the tears?” the warden asked.
“I have lost my freedom,” she sobbed.
Again, the warden refrained from reminding her of her annual opportunity to escape. He failed to remind her because he understood that she already knew. He understood how she knew, yet purposely failed to let it be known.
The prisoner composed herself enough to ask, “Warden, how do you feel about your failure?”
“Yes. Is your project not one of rehabilitation?”
“It is,” the warden confessed.
“And my freedom is the consequence – the reward – for your rehabilitation.”
The warden cleared his throat.
“Your freedom is your reward, not mine. Our duty has been to provide you with ample time in solitude to comprehend such a simple idea, yet, it seems you haven’t. Even with nothing to distract you from comprehending such a simple truth – even without any responsibilities or obligations to distract you – you’ve still failed to comprehend it.”
“Yet, it is your project. Your project – your aim, your goal – is one of rehabilitation.”
“But I have not been rehabilitated. Hence, I remain imprisoned.”
“True,” the warden admitted.
“Then you have failed us,” Prisoner 1023388 accused.
If she had asked the warden if there was another opportunity to escape, he would have reminded her there is one opportunity every year, for only seconds on a single day, for her to escape.
If she had asked the warden for the specific date and time, he would have told her.
But she didn’t ask. She only blamed.
The warden had made this offer enough times he’d come to understand the ones genuinely interested in their freedom are the ones who don’t neglect the date and time of their escape from his prison.
He understood the ones sincerely interested in their freedom are the ones standing at the ready on the day and time the prison gate opens for them.
“Life is miserable without freedom,” Prisoner 1023388 said. “There is no value in a life without freedom.”
The warden agreed.
“Yes. It must be miserable,” he said.
The prisoner stared at the warden before asking, “Then what is to be done?”
The warden scoffed.
“Let’s not pretend you don’t know the answer,” he said.
The prisoner turned away.
“Then I shall leave you a while longer to consider your plight,” the warden said.
“As long as it takes,” the warden said. “Perhaps, forever.”
“Forever? In here? As a prisoner?”
“Yes,” the warden said. “And, in doing so, I encourage you to reconsider your definition of prisoner. I’m giving you the freedom to decide if your imprisonment lasts another year or forever. But that decision is yours. That is what we mean by freedom. Not candies and cakes and plush theaters. Freedom of choice. Embracing the freedom to decide for yourself. And the freedom to make better choices after you fail.”
“I don’t understand,” the prisoner said. “When I think of freedom I can only imagine warm, salty seas and sandy beaches.”
“Cogito, ergo sum,” the warden said.
“Why are you spewing nonsense?” the prisoner asked. “I am confused enough.”
“I can give you a book on Latin from our library,” the warden offered.
“No,” she said. “I have my prayers and scriptures and my visions of freedom to get me through all these long days and lonely nights of my imprisonment. And they are enough.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Sometimes, in that moment, a prisoner asks for a translation of the Latin phrase. The warden waited for his prisoner to ask for a translation. He waited for her ask what it meant. If she had asked, he’d have graciously offered her its meaning.
She didn’t ask.
And she never did.
One thought on “Freedom to Escape”
This resonated with me and what I have to do.