Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters (I)

It's been a few months since I read 'That Bird Has My Wings' by Jarvis Masters. Jarvis is currently in 'maximum security' on Death Row. His case in appeal. This book is his memoir, which he wrote with the hope of promoting change in the agencies of our society that we entrust with the lives of children who have been "abandoned, abused, and wounded." Jarvis was born to parents who were addicted to heroine and, without doubt, Jarvis belongs to this group of children. It's clear from the memoir that the agencies that we have set up in our society to help the impoverished and neglected in many cases result in repeated re-victimization.

I read 'That Bird Has My Wings' mainly as an exercise in compassion. I had recently finished reading my first book on the lojong teachings but still felt confused about what compassion actually is in practice. How and why did our system fail Jarvis instead of giving him the chance it was designed to?

It's an important question because that system is us. Not only that, each one of us is Jarvis. Not only because of the awareness that we all share, but also because, placing myself in Jarvis' shoes,  I can truthfully say there were very few instances I would have made different choices than he did and, even in those instances, it may only have been a matter of time before I reached my limits. That's true for each of us. Our limits are only a function of circumstances and past conditioning, i.e. habits and fears. Moreover each of our habits whether good or bad runs the risk of becoming an addiction if we don't learn to drop off views (by addiction, I mean a situation where our definition of right and wrong is black and white). On the other hand, if you think no-self is the perfect state to live from, think again. No-self is allowing ourselves to be driven by the "winds" and delusions of the people we are in contact with and that is sacrificing our ability to think for ourselves and affect change. Both self and no-self are characterized by a degree of blindness to the influences of the part of society we inhabit.

I want to share one of the particularly moving moments Jarvis writes about and ask readers to ask themselves what they would have done. (I'll include a couple more in another post.):

After years of being in foster care and a variety of detentional institutions for teens, Jarvis was released and given a job in a town where he didn't know anyone, felt listless and not belonging to anything. It was a situation that was sterile and desolate. It was easy to see how he got talked into returning to his extended family even though he was aware of the potential problems. It was family, including the warmth and hospitality that family implies. Jarvis had had such a limited opportunity to be with caring family throughout his life. What would you have done?

Of course, given the need to support and defend himself living in an environment with different rules, his situation deteriorated and eventually he was sent to San Quentin for armed robbery. Think of it though. When he was released, he was in a mental space similar to 'no-self' but of a sterile, desolate nature. No warmth, affection or appreciation. When he joined his extended family, his mind was still in that sterile no-self space, easily influenced by the people, demands and problems of his environment.

-- to be continued --

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