Recently, my wife and I were discussing where to send our son to school, closer to where we live or closer to where he goes to pre-school now at my wife’s church. At some point the conversation shifted to a discussion of our son’s personality and social skills. When he’s in his comfort zone, he’s gregarious, outgoing, and sociable. At his Summer camp, though, out of his element, he’s more of a loner.
My wife reflected on her own experience in school. She remembered the in-crowd seemed to have some kind of bond or a secret language and it was hard to break in. Then it hit her, their parents all knew each other. These kids knew each other outside of school. The solution? I would have to step up and initiate social contacts to help smooth the path for our son when he started school. Not the most attractive of tasks. As a general rule, if I can avoid small talk, I will.
Since then, I reflected on a passage by Anthony De Mello in The Way To Love: “every painful event contains in itself a seed of growth and liberation.” What liberation? The insight that approval, acceptance, and acquiring the things we’re after will never ever bring ultimate happiness, only temporary thrills, a short-term ego boost.
Instead, pain is always a clue as to what illusion we’re clinging to, what we think we need, always a story in the mind that ultimately doesn’t exist. The experiences that move us closer to shattering these illusions are the greatest gifts.
As a counter-intuitive practice, De Mello suggests thinking of the people and events who have hurt us – by letting us down, rejecting us, betraying us (intentional malice and abuse are of course other matters, though even here, compassion can grow). We call them to mind, one by one. The appropriate response, seen from a certain angle, is gratitude. These are our teachers, offering a way of understanding and self-discovery we can’t get any other way. We drop false beliefs, illusions, our programming about where happiness can be found. This is the way of growth and life and freedom. This is the burning away of the ego.
He even goes a step further and asks us to think of those we’ve hurt through our own unconscious behavior. Unwittingly, we’ve offered them a gift, to see where their illusory sources of happiness were.
There is a joy available, a delight in the most readily available things, if only we drop the things we think will make us happy. Note that this is not withdrawal and resignation; it is not despair. People in these states often haven’t been able to shift their focus. They still feel the primary purpose of life is to have their needs met; they’ve just determined that won’t happen for them. They’ve become trapped in what Thomas Keating calls programs for human misery.
Instead, a deep attention to the pain and its source can bring about an incredible lightness and freedom. We practice accepting what is, right now in this moment. Even if we feel we’ve done this work to a degree, many of us displace our ego pursuits onto our community, kids, team, country, whatever. It’s just one degree removed but still there. We want vicarious achievement, glory, victory, acceptance, and so on. If it’s “for the kids” we can even wrap ourselves in a false selflessness.
We are to find the spark of discontent. To fan that flame. And let it burn away all the mind-created forgeries of reality. We need no one’s approval. There’s nothing to achieve. The divine is always available right now, in this moment. In fact that’s the only place it’s ever available. This isn’t an invitation to arrogance and laziness, but to the deepest level of acceptance, to the joy of kingdom, to the delight of pure being. Fixating on a future state when all will be made right, or a golden age in the past when the collective morality quotient was higher – all that keeps us distracted. It keeps us in a perpetual elsewhere. Getting to this place of acceptance usually takes what Richard Rohr calls necessary suffering. Our pain is a key to our freedom. The lantern floats that makes space for the flame.
As parents, the truth that pain leads to wisdom is a scary prospect, because we also know that pain can lead to self-destruction. But I can’t predict where my son’s sources of pain will be, or the degree of their intensity. The best I can do is model and offer the invitation to learn from them when they do come. It’s likely he’ll ultimately learn more from seasons of outsider status than from status and approval from the in-crowd. I don’t know what he’ll do with the gifts he receives. That’s a story that has yet to be written.