Will I Be of Help to You in This Retreat?
The following is the 2nd 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
“Do you think I am going to help anybody? No! Oh, no, no, no, no, no! Don’t expect me to be of help to anyone. Nor do I expect to damage anyone. If you are damaged, you did it; and if you are helped, you did it. You really did! You think people help you? They don’t. You think people support you? They don’t.
“There was a woman in a therapy group I was conducting once. She was a religious sister. She said to me, ‘I don’t feel supported by my superior.’ So I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘Well, my superior, the provincial superior, never shows up at the novitiate where I am in charge, never. She never says a word of appreciation.’ I said to her, ‘All right, let’s do a little role playing. Pretend I know your provincial superior. In fact, pretend I know exactly what she thinks about you. So I say to you (acting the part of the provincial superior), ‘You know, Mary, the reason I don’t come to that place you’re in is because it is the one place in the province that is trouble-free—no problems. I know you’re in charge, so all is well.’ How do you feel now?’ She said, ‘I feel great.’ Then I said to her, ‘All right, would you mind leaving the room for a minute or two. This is part of the exercise.’ So she did. While she was away, I said to the others in the therapy group, ‘I am still the provincial superior, O.K.? Mary out there is the worst novice director I have ever had in the whole history of the province. In fact, the reason I don’t go to the novitiate is because I can’t bear to see what she is up to. It’s simply awful. But if I tell her the truth, it’s only going to make those novices suffer all the more. We are getting somebody to take her place in a year or two; we are training someone. In the meantime I thought I would say those nice things to her to keep her going. What do you think of that?’ They answered, ‘Well, it was really the only thing you could do under the circumstances.’ Then I brought Mary back into the group and asked her if she still felt great. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. Poor Mary! She thought she was being supported when she wasn’t. The point is that most of what we feel and think we conjure up for ourselves in our heads, including this business of being helped by people.
“Do you think you help people because you are in love with them? Well, I’ve got news for you. You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person. Take a minute to think about that: You are never in love with anyone, you’re in love with your prejudiced idea of that person. Isn’t that how you fall out of love? Your idea changes, doesn’t it? ‘How could you let me down when I trusted you so much?’ you say to someone. Did you really trust them? You never trusted anyone. Come off it! That’s part of society’s brainwashing. You never trust anyone. You only trust your judgment about that person. So what are you complaining about? The fact is that you don’t like to say, ‘My judgment was lousy.’ That’s not very flattering to you, is it? So you prefer to say, ‘How could you have let me down?’
“So there it is: People don’t really want to grow up, people don’t really want to change, people don’t really want to be happy. As someone so wisely said to me, ‘Don’t try to make them happy, you’ll only get in trouble. Don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it irritates the pig.’ Like the businessman who goes into a bar, sits down, and sees this fellow with a banana in his ear—a banana in his ear! And he thinks, ‘I wonder if I should mention that to him. No, it’s none of my business.’ But the thought nags at him. So after having a drink or two, he says to the fellow, ‘Excuse me, ah, you’ve got a banana in your ear.’ The fellow says, ‘What?’ The businessman repeats, ‘You’ve got a banana in your ear.’ Again the fellow says, ‘What was that?’ ‘You’ve got a banana in your ear!’ the businessman shouts. ‘Talk louder,’ the fellow says, ‘I’ve got a banana in my ear!’
“So it’s useless. ‘Give up, give up, give up,’ I say to myself. Say your thing and get out of here. And if they profit, that’s fine, and if they don’t, too bad!”
So, we really help ourselves when we look for answers outside ourselves? No guru changes us; we change us? A sponsor changes nothing about us; we change us? We are free to take the information offered in a friend’s advice, a book and free to arrive at meetings or not. We are free to call a sponsor or not. Maybe I could elaborate on the ‘Mary’ story above. In the beginning after she took over the novitiate, things ran smoothly. And in time the superior got wind that things were not going so well where upon she tried to turn things around: further training for Mary, advice, staff changes and so on. But until Mary accepted her own brokenness – took and humbly absorbed the advice; the help, i.e. made the decision herself – she could make no changes in herself.