“And the young man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Mark 10:22
Several years ago I was looking through postcards in a bookshop when I came across a card with a quotation from “Sister Mary Tricky.” Now I have no idea if “Sister Mary Tricky” is a real person or the figment of someone’s imagination, but the quote has stayed with me for quite some time now. It said: “ If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.” Think about that. “ If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.”
The ramifications, I think, are profound. Sister Mary is imagining a happiness that is not the least bit dependent on what we have or what we are, or on what others think of us — she sees a happiness that is not built on whether we’ve obtained the latest most sought-after possessions, achieved a certain status in relationship to our peers, or gained a measure of respectability in the eyes of those who “matter most” (remember, the rich young man in our gospel story today had all those things). She is envisioning a happiness that is not linked to our being popular or successful or rich, a happiness that does not depend on what is external and tangible , but on what is internal and real. That kind of happiness, Sister Mary maintains, cannot be taken away from us. No one can stop us from being happy when our happiness is rooted deep within us, rather than being derived from people and things outside of us.
Now that may seem obvious to some of us, but there is a great deal of unhappiness in our world today, and even among Christians, that is directly linked to our false notions about what will make us happy. In his book, The Way to Love, the late Jesuit author Anthony deMello identifies several “false notions” to which many of us are susceptible:
False notion #1: Without this particular person or thing in my life, I cannot be happy.
There are a good many of us, I’m afraid, who are, consciously or unconsciously, operating under this false notion. We are so attached to one particular person or to one particular thing – our job, our reputation, our success, our popularity, our wealth – that we have convinced ourselves that without this person or thing we cannot be happy. I have met single people who believe they will only really have the possibility of happiness when they find a partner. I have met students who are convinced that if they can make the team or if they can gain acceptance with a certain group at school or if they can make certain grades, they will find the happiness and satisfaction they long for. I have met adults whose happiness depends heavily on their salary level, the opportunities they are getting, the treatment they are receiving from their boss or co-workers, whether they receive the job or promotion they want, or on similar factors. But the truth is that when we build our lives on these things, we are doomed to a never-ending struggle that will always fail us in the end. We are drawn into spending enormous energy and effort trying to acquire the things we long for, clinging to them once we have them, and fighting off the possibility of losing them . And we are set on an exhausting roller-coaster ride of emotions: there may be the initial thrill of obtaining what we believe we need for our happiness, but then there is the anxiety of trying to preserve it once we have it, and the misery of losing it when our circumstances change. False notion #1: Without this person or thing in my life, I cannot be happy. This is false. Absolutely false.
False notion #2: Happiness will come if I manage to change the situation I am in or the people around me, or both.
The reason this kind of thinking leads us astray is that it is still based on the belief that happiness is based on external factors, rather than on an interior mindset. We imagine that if we could just change something about ourselves or about our situation in life or about the person we are living with or working alongside, then things would be alright and we could be really happy. But happiness is about something deep within, and all the changes we dream of will never result in anything more than temporary feelings of satisfaction or pleasure. True happiness will still elude us. So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to cure our baldness or preserve our youthfulness or relocate our residence or change our job or our lifestyle or our personality or our looks in the hope that these changes will make us happy. Changes like these simply will not — indeed, cannot — give us that deep happiness that no one can take away from us. We can obtain all these things and more, and still not find happiness. That is false notion #2, that happiness will come if and when I can change the situation I am in or the people around me. It too is false. Completely false.
False notion #3: My unhappiness is a result either of my misfortune or of the actions of those around me. It is caused by something or some one outside of myself.
In fact, the feelings that trouble us most stem directly from our inordinate attachments to the people and things we believe will make us happy. We become anxious and afraid because we fear that we may fail to obtain the object of our attachment, or lose it once we have gained it. We become jealous when someone else claims for themselves the person or things that we are attached to. We become angry when we are denied our attachments, when others stand in the way of our achieving them. We become depressed and irritable when life is not giving us what we have convinced ourselves that we cannot live without. Almost every negative emotion we experience is the direct outcome of an unhealthy attachment . Our unhappiness does not stem from our circumstances or from the actions of other people; it is rooted entirely in our attachments.
So here comes this young man to Jesus. He is wealthy, righteous, upstanding, widely respected. He has been faithful in keeping the commandments, earnest in the practice of his religion, without fault in his ethical behavior. And yet, with all his achievements and with all his possessions and with his excellent reputation and broad sense of accomplishment, there is still something missing. And he knows it. And so he comes to Jesus, and Jesus (the gospel writer tells us) “looks at him with love.” He sees deep into the sadness of his heart and recognizes the depth of his attachment. He sees that there is something getting in the way of his ability to respond freely and completely to God, something to which his heart is clinging and on which he is basing much of his life. And Jesus, in love, reaches out and touches the place where he most needs to be free: “You lack one thing,” he says. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…and then come, follow me.”
Jesus comes as One who can set us free from inordinate attachments, those things to which we desperately cling in our search for happiness. “Is not life more than these?” he asks, as he gently and lovingly touches the very places in our lives where we are most bound. “You lack this one thing. Let it go. Come and follow me.”
But the man chooses to go away, sorrowful, clinging to his possessions and his life of wealth and privilege. How different from another story told in the New Testament, the story of St Paul, who sacrificed his attachment to his background, education, reputation and social standing to follow Christ. “Whatever gains I had,” he tells the Christians at Philippi, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7). He decided to hold onto nothing except Christ, and in that single-minded devotion he found a deep happiness and an abiding peace. In the book of Acts, we read of him in prison for the sake of the gospel, bound in chains and irons, and yet singing the praises of God. What is the source of that kind of joy? “I am convinced,” he writes to the Christians at Rome, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).
I know an old Jesuit priest whose joy is so deep and profound that it radiates from his entire being. A friend of mine once asked him what the secret of his happiness was. “I’ve given it all away,” he said. It is that kind of freedom, that kind of self-abandonment, that kind of richness, that kind of happiness, that Jesus was offering to the young man in our story today. But he went away sad, still clinging to his possessions, still attached to his life of privilege. Wealth was his ultimate reality, and though he was “respectable” in the eyes of many, his sadness testifies to the final emptiness of his choice.
Whoever Sister Mary Tricky is or was, she seems to have known something important about real happiness, the happiness that no one can take from us, that no event or circumstance can disrupt or destroy. “If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.” How do you find that kind of abiding peace and happiness? Through detachment. By letting go. “Go, rid yourself of your inordinate attachment to all that is false and shallow and temporary, all that has weighed you down or bound you up, and come, follow me.”
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