Insight and Understanding
The following is the 47th chapter in AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words
by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the Center for Spiritual Exchange
“But what does self-change entail? I’ve said it in so many words, over and over, but now I’m going to break it down into little segments. First, insight. Not effort, not cultivating habits, not having an ideal. Ideals do a lot of damage. The whole time you’re focusing on what should be instead of focusing on what is. And so you’re imposing what should be on a present reality, never having understood what present reality is. Let me give you an example of insight from my own experience in counseling. A priest comes to me and says he’s lazy; he wants to be more industrious, more active, but he is lazy. I ask him what ‘lazy’ means. In the old days I would have said to him, ‘Let’s see, why don’t you make a list of things you want to do every day, and then every night you check them off, and it will give you a good feeling; build up habit that way.’ Or I might say to him, ‘Who is your ideal, your patron saint?’ And if he says St. Francis Xavier, I would tell him, ‘See how much Xavier worked. You must meditate on him and that will get you moving.’ That’s one way of going about it, but, I’m sorry to say, it’s superficial. Making him use his willpower, effort, doesn’t last very long. His behavior may change, but he does not. So I now move in the other direction. I say to him, ‘Lazy, what’s that? There are a million types of laziness. Let’s hear what your type of laziness is. Describe what you mean by lazy?’ He says, ‘Well, I never get anything done. I don’t feel like doing anything.’ I ask, ‘You mean right from the moment you get up in the morning?’ ‘Yes,’ he answers. ‘I wake up in the morning and there’s nothing worth getting up for.’ ‘You’re depressed, then?’ I ask. ‘You could call it that,’ he says. ‘I have sort of withdrawn.’ ‘Have you always been like this?’ I ask. ‘Well, not always. When I was younger, I was more active. When I was in the seminary, I was full of life.’ ‘So when did this begin?’ ‘Oh, about three or four years ago.’ I ask him if anything happened then. He thinks a while. I say, ‘If you have to think so much, nothing very special could have happened four years ago. How about the year before that?’ He says, ‘Well, I was ordained that year.’ ‘Anything happen in your ordination year?’ I ask. ‘There was one little thing, the final examination in theology; I failed it. It was a bit of a disappointment, but I’ve gotten over it. The bishop was planning to send me to Rome, to eventually teach in the seminary. I rather liked the idea, but since I failed the examination, he changed his mind and sent me to this parish. Actually, there was some injustice because . . .’ Now he’s getting worked up; there’s anger there that he hasn’t gotten over. He’s got to work through that disappointment. It’s useless to preach him a sermon. It’s useless to give him an idea. We’ve got to get him to face his anger and disappointment and to get some insight into all of that. When he’s able to work through that, he’s back into life again. If I gave him an exhortation and told him how hard his married brothers and sisters work, that would merely make him feel guilty. He doesn’t have the self-insight which is going to heal him. So that’s the first thing.
There’s another great task, understanding. Did you really think this was going to make you happy? You just assumed it was going to make you happy. Why did you want to teach in the seminary? Because you wanted to be happy. You thought that being a professor, having a certain status and prestige, would make you happy. Would it? Understanding is called for there.
In making the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me,’ it’s a great help to disidentify what is going on. Let me give you an example of this kind of thing. A young Jesuit priest comes to see me; he’s a lovely, extraordinary, gifted, talented, charming, lovable man—everything. But he had a strange kind of a kink. With employees he was a terror. He was even known to assault them. It nearly became a matter for the police. Whenever he was put in charge of the grounds, the school, or whatever, this problem would keep coming up. He made a thirty-day retreat in what we Jesuits call a Tertianship, where he meditated day after day on the patience and love of Jesus for those who were underprivileged, etc. But I knew it wasn’t going to have an effect. Anyway, he went home and was better for about three or four months. (Somebody said about most retreats that we begin them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and we end as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.) After that, he was right back to square one. So he came to see me. I was very busy at the time. Though he had come from another city in India, I couldn’t see him. So I said, ‘I’m going for my evening walk; if you want to come with me on the walk, that’s fine, but I don’t have any other time.’ So we went for a walk. I’d known him before, and as we were walking, I had a strange feeling. When I get one of these strange feelings, I generally check it out with the person in question. So I said, ‘I have a strange feeling that you’re hiding something from me. Are you?’ He became indignant. He said, ‘What do you mean, hiding? Do you think I’d undertake this long journey and come to ask for your tune in order to hide something?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s a funny feeling I had, that’s all; I thought I should check with you.’ We walked on. We have a lake not far from where I live. I remember the scene distinctly. He said, ‘Could we sit down somewhere?’ I said, ‘O.K.’ We sat on a low wall that skirts the lake. He said, ‘You’re right. I am hiding something from you.’ And with that he burst into tears. He said, ‘I’m going to tell you something I’ve never said to anybody since I became a Jesuit. My father died when I was very young, and my mother became a servant. Her job was to clean lavatories and toilets and bathrooms, and sometimes she’d work for sixteen hours a day to get the wherewithal to support us. I’m so ashamed of that that I’ve hidden it from everybody and I continue taking revenge, irrationally, on her and the whole servant class.’ The feeling got transferred. No one could make sense of why this charming man was doing this, but the moment he saw that, there was never any trouble again, never. He was all right.”