“Don’t teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and irritates the pig.”
I read that quote in Anthony de Mello’s little book Rediscovering Life: Awaken to Reality right after I wrote last week’s blog post. Tony’s words woke me up to recognize that I’ve been looking to circumstances, people, or events to make me happy.
Although Tony used this saying to explain why he didn’t bother trying to convince people to agree with him, it clearly illustrates his message that we can be happy right here, right now. Stop trying to get life out of the things that aren’t made to do that. Stop trying to get real joy out of what gives pleasure.
I enjoy biking, sunny days, and harmonious interactions, but I don’t need those things to be happy. Disappointment, sadness, and being in a “funk” are signs that I’m trying to teach a pig to sing again. I’ve attached my happiness to something other than God.
I sat with Tony’s words for a while and recalled Jesus, Ignatius, John of the Cross and other mystics and teachers past and present saying the same thing.
I need to let go. . . again.
“Let go,” Tony says. Let go of trying to get or hold onto what thrills. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the things that make me happy in the moment. I just need to loosen my grip and remember that what I’m experiencing isn’t real happiness. It’s just a taste of it. It’s a bit of the infinite reflected in the finite, to paraphrase Jim Finley in his talks on John of the Cross.
Letting go begins with noticing what I’m attached to–having space in my day, being a person who doesn’t hurt others, having clarity and predictability, among other things.
But Tony wonders if we really want to be happy. By happy, he means a deep sense of peace and well-being grounded in God. It’s the joy that Jesus talks about having “to the full.”
Tony invites us to test ourselves.
Suppose you could be blissfully happy, but you’re not going to get that college degree. Are you ready to barter your degree for happiness? You’re not going to get that girlfriend, or that boyfriend? Are you ready to barter them for happiness? Huh? How about this? You’re not going to be a success; you’re going to fail, and everybody is going to call you a bum. But you’ll be happy, you’ll be blissfully happy. Are you ready to barter the good opinion of people for that?
Here’s what I hear Tony saying to me.
“Esther, what would you barter for real happiness? Suppose you could be blissfully happy, but your day will be chaotic. Are you ready to barter your calm day for happiness? Suppose you can be blissfully happy, but you’ll be a person who upsets others. Are you ready to barter who you’d like to be for happiness? What is more important? To be blissfully happy or have have clarity, predictability, sunny skies, long life, health? What if you gain all the weight back you lost, your kids believe you’re a terrible parent, your friends give up on you, your church calls you a heretic, your house burns down, or your government turns on you? What are you trusting to make you happy?”
The truth is that I’ve been unconsciously choosing to be miserable so I can have all the things I think will make me happy–and they don’t, not for long, anyway. I’ve been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” as the song goes. And I’ve been trying to teach a pig that song.
It’s not working.
I need a new view.
Jesus is showing me that view. I hear him saying, “You’re waking up and finding that you can be happy without the things you’re attached to. You can be lonely, hurt, confused and be at peace. It’s a peace that surpasses understanding and is possible as long as I’m around–and I’m right here. Always.”
I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty.
Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. –Philippians 4:11-13 (MSG)
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Here is a video of Tony de Mello, SJ (1931-1987) giving a retreat that is the basis of the book I read Rediscovering Life: Awaken to Reality. Note that letting go or choosing happiness now doesn’t mean suppressing or denying our feelings. It means sinking below them to a deeper reality.