The following is the 35th 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
“That brings me to another theme, another topic. But this new topic ties in very much with what I’ve been saying and with my suggestion of becoming aware of all the things we add to reality. Let’s take this one step at a time.
“A Jesuit was telling me the other day how years ago he gave a talk in New York, where Puerto Ricans were very unpopular at the time because of some incident. Everybody was saying all kinds of things against them. So in his talk he said, ‘Let me read to you some of the things that the people in New York were saying about certain immigrants.’ What he read to them was actually what people had said about the Irish, and about the Germans, and about every other wave of immigrants that had come to New York years before! He put it very well when he said, ‘These people don’t bring delinquency with them; they become delinquent when they’re faced with certain situations here. We’ve got to understand them. If you want to cure the situation, it’s useless reacting from prejudice. You need understanding, not condemnation.’ That is how you bring about change in yourself. Not by condemnation, not by calling yourself names, but by understanding what’s going on. Not by calling yourself a dirty old sinner. No, no, no, no!
“In order to get awareness, you’ve got to see, and you can’t see if you’re prejudiced. Almost everything and every person we look at, we look at in a prejudiced way. It’s almost enough to dishearten anybody.
“Like meeting a long-lost friend. ‘Hey, Tom,’ I say, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and I give him a big hug. Whom am I hugging, Tom or my memory of him? A living human being or a corpse? I’m assuming that he’s still the attractive guy I thought he was. I’m assuming he still fits in with the idea I have of him and with my memories and associations. So I give him a hug. Five minutes later I find that he’s changed and I have no more interest in him. I hugged the wrong person.
“If you want to see how true this is, listen: A religious sister from India goes out to make a retreat. Everybody in the community is saying, ‘Oh, we know, that’s part of her charism; she’s always attending workshops and going to retreats; nothing will ever change her.’ Now, it so happens that the sister does change at this particular workshop, or therapy group, or whatever it is. She changes; everyone notices the difference. Everyone says, ‘My, you’ve really come to some insights, haven’t you?’ She has, and they can see the difference in her behavior, in her body, in her face. You always do when there’s an inner change. It always registers in your face, in your eyes, in your body. Well, the sister goes back to her community, and since the community has a prejudiced, fixed idea about her, they’re going to continue to look at her through the eyes of that prejudice. They’re the only ones who don’t see any change in her. They say, ‘Oh well, she seems a little more spirited, but just wait, she’ll be depressed again.’ And within a few weeks she is depressed again; she’s reacting to their reaction. And they all say, ‘See, we told you so; she hadn’t changed.’ But the tragedy is that she had, only they didn’t see it. Perception has devastating consequences in the matter of love and human relationships.
“Whatever a relationship may be, it certainly entails two things: clarity of perception (inasmuch as we’re capable of it; some people would dispute to what extent we can attain clarity of perception, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it is desirable that we move toward it) and accuracy of response. You’re more likely to respond accurately when you perceive clearly. When your perception is distorted, you’re not likely to respond accurately. How can you love someone whom you do not even see? Do you really see someone you’re attached to? Do you really see someone you’re afraid of and therefore dislike? We always hate what we fear.
“‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ people say to me sometimes. But wait a minute. I hope they understand what they’re saying, because we always hate what we fear. We always want to destroy and get rid of and avoid what we fear. When you fear somebody, you dislike that person. You dislike that person insofar as you fear that person. And you don’t see that person either, because your emotion gets in the way. Now, that’s just as true when you are attracted to someone. When true love enters, you no longer like or even dislike people in the ordinary sense of the word. You see them clearly and you respond accurately. But at this human level, your likes and dislikes and preferences and attractions, etc., continue to get in the way. So you have to be aware of your prejudices, your likes, your dislikes, your attractions. They’re all there, they come from your conditioning. How come you like things that I don’t like? Because your culture is different from mine. Your upbringing is different from mine. If I gave you some of the things to eat that I relish, you’d turn away in disgust.
“There are people in certain parts of India who love dog flesh. Yet others, if they were told they were being served dog steak, would feel sick. Why? Different conditioning, different programming. Hindus would feel sick if they knew they had eaten beef, but Americans enjoy it. You ask, ‘But why won’t they eat beef?’ For the same reason you won’t eat your pet dog. The same reason. The cow, to the Indian peasant, is what your pet dog is to you. He doesn’t want to eat it. There is a built-in cultural prejudice against it which saves an animal that’s needed so much for farming, etc.
“So why do I fall in love with a person really? Why is it that I fall in love with one kind of person and not another? Because I’m conditioned. I’ve got an image, subconsciously, that this particular type of person appeals to me, attracts me. So when I meet this person, I fall head over heels in love. But have I seen her? No! I’ll see her after I marry her; that’s when the awakening comes! And that’s when love may begin. But falling in love has nothing to do with love at all. It isn’t love, it’s desire, burning desire. You want, with all your heart, to be told by this adorable creature that you’re attractive to her. That gives you a tremendous sensation. Meanwhile, everybody else is saying, ‘What the hell does he see in her?’ But it’s his conditioning—he’s not seeing. They say that love is blind. Believe me, there’s nothing so clear-sighted as true love, nothing. It’s the most clear-sighted thing in the world. Addiction is blind, attachments are blind. Clinging, craving, and desire are blind. But not true love. Don’t call them love. But, of course, the word has been desecrated in most modern languages. People talk about making love and falling in love. Like the little boy who says to the little girl, ‘Have you ever fallen in love?’ And she answers, ‘No, but I’ve fallen in like.’
“So what are people talking about when they fall in love? The first thing we need is clarity of perception. One reason we don’t perceive people clearly is evident—our emotions get in the way, our conditioning, our likes and dislikes. We’ve got to grapple with that fact. But we’ve got to grapple with something much more fundamental—with our ideas, with our conclusions, with our concepts. Believe it or not, every concept that was meant to help us get in touch with reality ends up by being a barrier to getting in touch with reality, because sooner or later we forget that the words are not the thing. The concept is not the same as the reality. They’re different. That’s why I said to you earlier that the final barrier to finding God is the word ‘God’ itself and the concept of God. It gets in the way if you’re not careful. It was meant to be a help; it can be a help, but it can also be a barrier.”
…the final barrier to finding God is the word ‘God’ itself and the concept of God. I see it every day how people shut down once God comes into a conversation.
Yes, indeed! Fr. de Mello said just that, someplace else too, that religious training can be a kind of inoculation against receiving any spiritual inspiration. Ironic to be sure! Thanks for the comment Mary! M
This chapter has, for years, left a deep impression on me. Especially the story of a Sister who after attending a spiritual retreat was profoundly changed.
It really left me in awe of the power we have to help others grow and live dynamic lives in their world. And we do this by simply seeing clearly in our interaction with them and listen deeply. How do we hold them in our hearts? Do we, at best, expect the same sour attitude and pushback, say, from a given interaction, or is our heart soft and open, at least neutral, for a thoughtful generous response?
Read on and I hope you are as bless by this story as I was. You’ll recognize it!