attributed to Anthony DeMello
Once upon a time there was a lion who was caught by hunters. Overnight he was caged and lost his freedom, his wide-ranging home, and his wild life apart form others. His power was gone. But to his surprise, he wasn’t killed or skinned or put into a zoo. Instead he found that he was thrown into a concentration camp, a prison for lions. Not only that, he was surprised to find so many other lions like himself in the camp and to find out that many had been there for years.
In fact, most had settled into the routine of camp life, accepting their confinement as fact and reacting to it in a number of ways. For a while, he kept his distance from all the others and watched, listening to see what was going on. There were four groups, each distinctive in its reaction to being in prison. The first group was interested in the past, what it was like to be a lion in the jungle. They tried to keep that experience alive for those who were born in captivity and had no experience of what life was really like for lions. They ritualized events, dances, songs, and initiation rites, trying to help the others remember who they were.
The next group was basically the organizers. They had been there long enough to realize that possibilities of getting free were slim at best, so it was up to them to make the best of a bad situation. So they organized the camp into areas, making sure that everyone had what they needed, that extras were shared evenly, and that newcomers were taught the lay of the land.
The next group was the revolutionaries. They plotted and planned a way to escape, trained, and kept in shape. Periodically a group made a rush for freedom, attacking the fence or the guards or trying to slip alone into the dark. Some died; some were wounded; some were put in solitary. These lions kept to themselves, away from the others in the camp.
The last group seemed to be the largest of all. They were hard to peg or figure out. They lived as though this were all they had ever known and counseled each other, set up programs of education, socialization, exercise, entertainment, and just ignored the fence and the guards.
After watching the interaction of the camp for a few weeks, the young new lion was wondering what to do, which group to join. He noticed one lion who kept to himself, wasn’t part of a group. This lion paced by the fence, back and forth, incessantly, never deviating from the routine. He just kept moving. The young lion decided to fall in with this lion and see what he could learn. He walked with him for a day or two and then tried to approach him. He was swatted and clawed and told to shut up. He picked himself up and wondered if he’d done anything wrong. He watched and noticed that the other lions treated this one with respect, keeping their distance. Even the guards were more nervous and edgy around him and stayed out of his way. He went back to walking, pacing with him, and after another couple of days asked again what he was doing. Again he was slapped and clawed. But the third time he asked, the older lion stopped and eyes him directly. Then he answered, “What do you think I’m doing? I’m a lion. All the others have forgotten the one essential thing. This is a prison camp. I’m studying the nature of the fence.” And with that, the young lion fell in behind him. Now there are two lions who are treated with respect, and they keep at the one essential thing: freedom.