You’re sitting in your cage. There are other cages to your left and right, with other people like you. Everyone is looking forward. This is because you can’t look back. If you look back, something too terrible to be imagined would happen. But not even that, because you CAN’T look back.
Before you is a beautiful world full of food, luxury, and wonder. There are people there, people not like you, well dressed and well fed. You sit on the cold floor of your cell, eating dry, ugly bread and drinking water that is full of chemicals that make you sick. You forget about the chemicals after a while, though if you ever got clean water it’d probably taste the sweetest in the world.
You’re happy though, because you work hard and you earn that food. Work consists of writing lines. “You can’t look back,” you write a thousand times one day, sign your name at the bottom, and hand over the stack of papers to a well-fed official, who signs the papers, stamps them, and sends them off to be burnt. “If you look back, something too terrible to be imagined will happen,” you write fifteen hundred times the next day. You earned extra food that day, while Jones had an injured hand and only earnt a single slice of bread. Your official patted you on the head and then said to Jones, “You see, Jones, THIS is a worker with potential. THIS is what I like to see. Why aren’t you like that? Why do you insist on being lazy and stupid, Jones?” Jones hung his head in shame. You felt a little sorry for him, maybe, but at the same time the stronger emotion was gladness that you weren’t him.
You work every day, and you know you’re happy, because everything is okay. How could you be unhappy if everything were okay? So you are happy. Of course you wish you had more food, and more luxury. But the beautiful thing about living in a cage is that if you want something, you just have to work for it. You’ve worked hard all your life, and in return the authorities have rewarded you highly.
Still, at night you dream of a beautiful garden where there are fruits and delicious sweet water, and beautiful flowers and trees. The air is cool and fresh and has a thousand tantalising smells on it. In the distance, there are rolling green white-capped mountains, so vast and open, so clear and pure, you feel like you could run across them forever and never get tired.
You don’t talk about the garden, though. If you did, you’d be diagnosed as mentally ill by the authorities and taken away to a terrible place. “People who dream of gardens are insane,” you write seven hundred times one day, feeling particularly pleased at the regularity of your handwriting.
One day you have a child, having earnt the right to enter another cage and mate. You are happy, and (feeling an odd pain in your chest which you assume is happiness) set about teaching your growing child how to live well.
For instance, you find that the child spends all day playing and laughing. You hit the child with a stick and tell them that they have to write lines. Crying, the child asks, “Why?”
“Because you need to eat!!” you yell harshly, causing the kid to cry again. Tough love, sure, but violence is how you learn.
“But I don’t!” the kid cries. “I get food from the garden!”
This shocks you a moment and you lower your beating-stick. “What? Garden?”
“Yeah! I eat delicious fruit and drink sweet water! Why do you eat that stuff?”
Your mouth opens and closes for a while. For a moment, a clear bright feeling enters your heart and you think to wonder, maybe the garden I’ve seen in my dreams really exists? Maybe I don’t have to write lines all day? But then sense returns to you. “There is no garden, and there is no fruit!!” you yell, hitting the kid with all the love you can muster. You watch them fall to the floor and cry profusely, feeling a burning, searing, crushing joy in your heart.
You keep teaching your child as best you can, and make sure to send them to school, where they are taught during the day while you have to write lines, so that they are never left alone where they might do unnatural things like laugh and smile. Soon their tears begin to give way to a cold-hearted tolerance of the conditions of their life, and in proportion to the tears, their joy falls away too. Seeing your kid’s excellent progress, the school authorities send you a piece of paper congratulating you. Other children take longer to learn, sometimes bringing disciplinary measures against their parents. You are happy, though sometimes you catch yourself wanting to see your kids’ smile again.
And at night, you dream more and more of the garden. The dreams become brighter and more intense, and you start to dream of other people there with you, beautiful and free. You dream of eating indiscribably beautiful fruits and spending time laughing and playing like a child, being happy for the sake of it, and sharing that happiness with the beautiful people around you. You touch them and hug them naturally, and tell them that you love them, not in an automatic hand-crank manner but slowly, looking them in the eyes and feeling the words rising out of a vast pure sea of love that you sense spreading out to infinity inside your chest.
One day, your bread comes to you full of dirt. You ask your authorities why. “Because we’re in an economic crisis,” they say. “If you want better bread, you’ll have to work harder.” Interestingly, during this time the authorities are eating even more bread, with an even greater variety of interesting meats and cheeses. Some of them are getting fat.
But you work harder, long into the night. Two thousand lines of “There is no garden, there are no fruits, there are no trees.” Twenty-five hundred repetitions of, “Looking behind would be suicide.” Your hand starts to bleed. And your child spends all night sobbing quietly.
Eventually your child gets sick, their body weak from malnourishment and poisonous residues. You find out that medication is beyond your earning power. The authorities who get sick have pills, though. They have a big pile of them, more than they need.
You start to get desperate.
“Please, give my child help!” you cry. “Why can’t they have some of your pills?”
“Because you haven’t earned them,” is the answer. “Who do you think I am, Santa Claus?”
The days get worse and worse, and your child’s health steadily worsens. You curse the bars of your cage, you curse your ill fortune, and you curse the authorities. Quietly, at first, and then with more vehemence. You find other people who curse the authorities, and together you growl angrily and beat against the iron bars, longing to get to the better place before you. The authorities see you, and start taking some of you away to be disciplined. Some never come back. But your anger only grows.
And yet, at night you dream of a place that is so peaceful, so joyful. If this peace is what you want, you dare to ask yourself, then is there any sense in fighting a war? But you know that there is something more, something better than the life you’ve been given, and so you rage ever harder against the bars.
One day you are taken away to be tortured. You return weeks later a wreck of your former self. Your child looks the same. That night, you dream of such a beautiful place you wake up crying.
Suddenly in a fit of desperation you cry out to your child. “Could it be… is there really a garden, somewhere?”
And your child dutifully says, “No. There is no garden, there is no fruit. There is nothing behind us.”
You pull yourself closer to the bars of your child’s cage. “No, I mean it! Where is the garden? How do I get to the garden?” You’re beyond common sense right now. “It has to exist! My heart says that life is not right as it is! I am not happy!”
Weakly, the child says, “The garden is behind us. It has been behind us all this time.”
Your mouth drops open and suddenly in the beautiful simplicity of it you know that what they said is true.
But after that brilliant joyful flash, you start worrying again. “What if it’s not? What if I look behind me, and die?” In hopelessness, you fall to the floor and bury your head in your hands.
The day after, your child has disappeared. You don’t know where they went. The authorities don’t have an explanation for you. You cry, and long to have the courage to look behind you.
In your dreams, you see your child in the garden, happy and healthy again, playing with the beautiful people, kissing them and running around and eating beautiful fruits.
“What if,” you say to people from other cages, “What if looking behind us wasn’t so bad after all? What if the authorities told us not to because they didn’t want us to be free?” Most people look at you like you were crazy and shun you. A very few people seem to agree, but they, too, don’t have the courage to look behind. Some of them talk about “the Liberated Ones,” people who had had the strength to do it. They had visited the cages, sometimes, to try and help, though because most people couldn’t imagine that there was anything behind them, they couldn’t imagine that there could be anyone who could come in from behind them, and consequently generally just never noticed.
From one of these seekers, though, you learn a sort of neck exercise you can do to build your strength to look back. You do it, a little bit every day, and find yourself occasionally glimpse a brilliant light coming from behind you. Still, there are times when you fall back into your normal life, and spend huge energy in banging against the bars of your cage and crying for the food you see before you in the better place, longing to be there. You work and you rage and you cry, and you do your neck exercises.
One day you hear footsteps behind you, and realise that a Liberated One has come to help.
“Please, oh great guru,” you say. “Tell me, how many lines must I write for you to get the answer?”
“I don’t want any lines,” says the Liberated One.
“Master!” You cry. “I am not used to things being free! I don’t feel like I deserve the knowledge of the beautiful garden without paying you!”
“Then that is what you must resolve,” says the Liberated One.
“Oh great authority!” You cry. “How can I achieve this? What work must I do?”
“No work. You only need to get up and turn around.”
“But how do I get up and turn around??” you wail, tears rolling down your face, thinking how dearly you’d like to see your child again.
The Liberated One smiles, though his eyes are not without sadness. “By doing it.”
“Oh guru, oh master, oh grand authority!” you cry out, and attempt to kiss the Liberated One’s feet. He backs away. “I am none of those things! I’m just like you, a human being. Do you think I enjoy being worshipped or something?”
You look up in amazement. Then, even more to your amazement, the Liberated One pulls you to your feet and gives you a hug, and the light you feel shining out of him is so pure… you’ve never known anything more beautiful.
Finally he releases you, and clasps your shoulders. “Keep doing your neck exercises. But be open so that one day you’ll realise that you don’t need them.”
And with that, he is behind your back and gone.
You glimpse the light more and more, and you get excited and tell your friends. Years pass. Some of your friends are killed for being revolutionaries during this time, and disciplinary action is called against you, too, but you survive and keep with the exercises. Your teacher comes back every so often, and his message is always the same; “Stop raging against the bars and forgive, because the more you try to fight against your cage the more you forget that you are already free. To be Liberated is to remember this, nothing more: you are already free.” Some days you’re struggling so hard against the bars that you hardly pay attention to him, but his voice is a soothing presence and you find that your grip loosens. Other days you sit down together and do the exercises until your world is bathed in light.
And one day you laugh with joy, and turn around. You take three quick steps and there you are, out in the garden where there’s no need to struggle to survive, where food is better than you’ve ever tasted and unlimited in supply, where the air and water are pure and cleansing, and where there’s no need for medication, because your body is healthy as it is in any case. And the freedom, the boundless freedom!
You look back at the prison and you realise that your old oppressors are also living in a cage: a bigger cage, a more comfortable cage, but the difference is negligible in comparison to the beautiful world you now find yourself in. Their bread is dirty and makes them sick, and the drugs they use to mask their symptoms make their condition worse in subtle ways. They are prisoners just as you were.
With inexpressible sadness and joy you are reunited with your child and begin to live for the first time in your life.