The following is the 38th 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 DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center.
“Something more about words. I said to you earlier that words are limited. There is more I have to add. There are some words that correspond to nothing. For instance, I’m an Indian. Now, let’s suppose that I’m a prisoner of war in Pakistan, and they say to me, ‘Well, today we’re going to take you to the frontier, and you’re going to take a look at your country.’ So they bring me to the frontier, and I look across the border, and I think, ‘Oh, my country, my beautiful country. I see villages and trees and hills. This is my own, my native land!’ After a while one of the guards says, ‘Excuse me, we’ve made a mistake here. We have to move up another ten miles.’ What was I reacting to? Nothing. I kept focusing on a word, India. But trees are not India; trees are trees. In fact, there are no frontiers or boundaries. They were put there by the human mind; generally by stupid, avaricious politicians. My country was one country once upon a time; it’s four now. If we don’t watch out it might be six. Then we’ll have six flags, six armies. That’s why you’ll never catch me saluting a flag. I abhor all national flags because they are idols. What are we saluting? I salute humanity, not a flag with an army around it.
“Flags are in the heads of people. In any case, there are thousands of words in our vocabulary that do not correspond to reality at all. But do they trigger emotions in us! So we begin to see things that are not there. We actually see Indian mountains when they don’t exist, and we actually see Indian people who also don’t exist. Your American conditioning exists. My Indian conditioning exists. But that’s not a very happy thing. Nowadays, in Third World countries, we talk a great deal about ‘inculturation.’ What is this thing called ‘culture’? I’m not very happy with the word. Does it mean you’d like to do something because you were conditioned to do it? That you’d like to feel something because you were conditioned to feel it? Isn’t that being mechanical? Imagine an American baby that is adopted by a Russian couple and taken to Russia. It has no notion that it was born American. It’s brought up talking Russian; it lives and dies for Mother Russia; it hates Americans. The child is stamped with his own culture; it’s steeped in its own literature. It looks at the world through the eyes of its culture. Now, if you want to wear your culture the way you wear your clothes, that’s fine. The Indian woman would wear a sari and the American woman would wear something else, the Japanese woman would wear her kimono. But nobody identifies herself with the clothes. But you do want to wear your culture more intently. You become proud of your culture. They teach you to be proud of it. Let me put this as forcefully as possible. There’s this Jesuit friend of mine who said to me, ‘Anytime I see a beggar or a poor person, I cannot not give this person alms. I got that from my mother.’ His mother would offer a meal to any poor person who passed by. I said to him, ‘Joe, what you have is not a virtue; what you have is a compulsion, a good one from the point of view of the beggar, but a compulsion nonetheless.’ I remember another Jesuit who said to us once at an intimate gathering of the men of our Jesuit province in Bombay, ‘I’m eighty years old; I’ve been a Jesuit for sixty-five years. I have never once missed my hour of meditation—never once.’ Now, that could be very admirable, or it could also be a compulsion. No great merit in it if it’s mechanical. The beauty of an action comes not from its having become a habit but from its sensitivity, consciousness, clarity of perception, and accuracy of response. I can say yes to one beggar and no to another. I am not compelled by any conditioning or programming from my past experiences or from my culture. Nobody has stamped anything on me, or if they have, I’m no longer reacting on the basis of that. If you had a bad experience with an American or were bitten by a dog or had a bad experience with a certain type of food, for the rest of your life you’d be influenced by that experience. And that’s bad! You need to be liberated from that. Don’t carry over experiences from the past. In fact, don’t carry over good experiences from the past either. Learn what it means to experience something fully, then drop it and move on to the next moment, uninfluenced by the previous one. You’d be traveling with such little baggage that you could pass through the eye of a needle. You’d know what eternal life is, because eternal life is now, in the timeless now. Only thus will you enter into eternal life. But how many things we carry along with us. We never set about the task of freeing ourselves, of dropping the baggage, of being ourselves. I’m sorry to say that everywhere I go I find Muslims who use their religion, their worship, and their Koran to distract themselves from this task. And the same applies to Hindus and Christians.
“Can you imagine the human being who is no longer influenced by words? You can give him any number of words and he’ll still give you a fair deal. You can say, ‘I’m Cardinal Archbishop So-and-so,’ but he’ll still give you a fair deal; he’ll see you as you are. He’s uninfluenced by the label.”