It was just another day at the textile factory where I worked as a manager. I had quit college to take my position there 12 years earlier. Twelve years. That came out to something like 30,000 hours, not counting all the overtime.
I cringed to think of how many of those hours I was unhappy. The owner of my company was hot-tempered, often making decisions I felt were unreasonable and contrary to the principles I was raised on. But I had to carry out her wishes, no matter what I thought of them.
At first I'd try to offer alternatives. But the answer would always be the same: "I'm the owner of this company, and I give the orders. You'll do what I say."
Once, she wanted a worker fired just because she didn't like "the looks of him." And I was the one who had to deliver the bad news. These people weren't just my subordinates—they were my friends. And the owner didn't like that.
I was supposed to take my breaks in the executive kitchen. But I worked the swing shift, so after she left around 5:30, I'd have dinner in the cafeteria with everyone else.
So many times I wanted to march into her office and hand in my resignation. But there weren't a lot of other jobs around, especially for someone without a college degree. How could I just walk out?
Sometimes it seemed I'd been there forever, and it certainly seemed like I would be there forevermore.
Things will get better, I told myself. But they didn't. At some point I stopped speaking up and drifted through each day as though in a fog, doing what was expected of me. I felt I had no choice. I had to pay rent just like everyone else.
My boss had already left that spring evening in 1999. While the workers were out of the factory on a break, I stayed on the production floor to check on customer orders and production levels.
I noticed one of our quality inspectors, Polina, come into the factory and approach me with her hands cupped.
Polina was an elderly woman from Russia who wore a babushka. Although her eyes often seemed tired, she always had a smile on her face. I envied her that.
"Tim, please help," she said. I now saw that she held in her hands a sparrow. "See, Tim, bird no good."
I looked closely at the bird. His legs were tangled in embroidery thread knotted around a twig. Polina told me she'd found the bird under a birch tree when she'd gone for a walk during her break. He had probably picked up the loose thread outside to build his nest.
"Poor little fellow," I said. "Lay him down on that table." I went to the first-aid cabinet and grabbed a pair of tweezers and small scissors.
While Polina tried to keep the sparrow still, I carefully cut at the thread. I strained my eyes trying to distinguish between the bird's thin legs and the twig that was the same color.
The bird was so scared it flapped its wings and twittered frantically. I stopped after a few snips to let him calm down. How would I ever get him free?
I glanced up at Polina. She just nodded, as if she had complete faith in me. The factory was empty except for us, the machines quiet. I bent over the bird again, clipping carefully. Suddenly nothing was more important than helping this sparrow.
He will fly again, I told myself. Finally I cut the last piece of thread. "There," I said. "He's free now."
Polina scooped the bird up and held it close to her. "Thank you for helping Polina fix bird. God bless you, Tim."
I felt good. In fact, I felt better than I had in a long time. Why couldn't I know this kind of peace every day? I followed Polina outside, where she blew a kiss into the air, then held out her hands.
The sparrow stood up, a little wobbly at first, then spread his wings and flew off to the branch of a nearby birch tree, ready to resume building his nest. Polina stood there waving good-bye to him, her face lit up by the setting sun.
We walked back into the factory. I looked at the hulking machines and the scrap piles of old cloth in the corners. I'd spent so much of my life here, and yet nothing I'd done at work had given me as much satisfaction as helping that tiny bird.
All the money and security in the world couldn't make me feel as at peace.
I had spent so long being a disciple of unkindness and justifying it by telling myself I had to answer to someone higher. I'd forgotten that ultimately I had to answer to the highest power of all.
Standing there in the factory, the twig I had freed the sparrow from still in my hand, I knew that God wanted me always to be kind and compassionate and true to my principles. And above all, I knew he wanted me to be happy.
It was time to act boldly—to leave this job that had caused me so much misery and trust God to guide me to a better life. I went back outside and spotted the sparrow, flying high and easy above the birch tree. He wasn't the only one who'd been set free that day.