This beautiful phrase, “a bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” was placed on eighty million unreleased postage stamps and attributed to writer Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But she didn’t create it. According to this article by Ian Crouch in the New Yorker Magazine, the line belongs to children’s author, Joan Walsh Anglund  or a Chinese proverb. Because Angelou liked the phrase, said it often and wrote a book with a singing bird in the title, there was confusion about its origin. Crouch attributes this conflation to inter-net misinformation and fIMG_1477
act checking slips.

All that will be sorted out in one way or another, but the line itself has such relevance for current culture. This probably does not need to be spelled out as it clicks viscerally, but I will indulge in a brief analysis.

So much of what we do now is for an end, rather than for the joy of the thing itself. Children are pressured to perform and master for the sake of a position. We have somehow created a world where we prioritize competition and flawlessness over an organic process, replete with stumbles and mistakes.

Many parents are troubled by this, but the notion that keeping pace protects their children has a stronghold. We know that letting kids find their own way is the best recipe for success but the cultural grip is hard to resist.

Excess focus on external rewards compromises inner sources for strong identity, self-soothing and true creativity. Some children achieve peak destinations but then suffer from burn out, depression, anxiety and despair. The question, “What’s it all for?” reflects a torturous predicament .

Author Kurt Vonnegut in a 1976 Paris Review interview recalled his sister who did not read much but wrote, “wonderfully well.” When he compared his prose to hers, he was “ashamed.” After bawling her out for not doing more with her talent, she replied, “having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it.”

Redefining success as the balance between striving and doing something just because you love to do it is an option.




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