Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Afraid of Happiness

"Walking in the Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

This morning as I looked out into the vast expanse of seemingly endless wilderness just outside my house,  I called to mind the familiar story of the “exodus” found in the Hebrew Bible - a familiar story about the Jewish people who have been freed from slavery in the land of Egypt. In the story, the now-freed slaves are on their way to the Promised Land, but before they can reach this new land that God has given to them, they must first travel for forty years through an endless and uncharted desert wilderness. This journey is not easy, the terrain is dry and rocky, the sun is hot, there are no roads and the way ahead is not clearly marked.  

God tells them that while there may be no maps or roads and the way ahead uncertain, if they put their trust in God and take good care of one another along the way, they will safely make it to their destination.

While people nowadays may be acquainted with this rather well-known story, there is one very important part of this tale that is often overlooked.

According to the Exodus account, there were a whole bunch of the now-free Hebrew slaves who decided that the journey in the wilderness was just too hard, the travel was too rough, the way ahead was too ambiguous, there were way too many questions and not enough answers and so many decided to pack up their families and go back to the servitude of slavery in Egypt.

Oddly enough they decided to return to their place of suffering, they went back and allowed the humiliating yoke of slavery to once again be placed upon them - at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and this was familiar territory

Like all stories in the scriptures, the tale of the “forty years in the wilderness” is far more than a historical retelling about freed Hebrew slaves making their way to the land of Israel thousands of years ago. It is a story about our common human condition- a story about how many of us may prefer to cling to our suffering rather than walk a path of freedom.

This reminds me of something Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about our human condition:

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

I find great wisdom in this observation. For the most part, most of us understand what causes the suffering we experience in life. We are all too familiar with what enslaves us - the pain of isolation and emptiness that happens when we feed a bloated ego and ignore the needs of others. At some level we all know that holding grudges against others causes us pain, that anger and hatreds eat away at us, that clinging to our stuff in life and always wanting more makes us feel isolated.

And yet, instead of venturing into the uncharted and unfamiliar territory of walking a new and different path, many choose to cling to the pain and stay with the familiar suffering.  They stay with the same old patterns and routines that they know causes them to be unhappy and keeps them in bondage. They tightly cling to worn-out familiar ideas and judgments, clutch tightly to grudges, cling to addictions, regrets and anxieties, and hoard all the things accumulated in life.

I am reminded again of one of my favorite teachings from priest and author, Anthony DeMello, who puts it this way:

As we walk a spiritual path it's not that we fear the unknown.
What we really fear is the loss of the known.
Many people don’t want to wake up, they don’t want to be happy
because they are afraid of happiness.

Many Christians are in the midst of observing the forty days of the Lenten season. It seems to me that this might be a good time for any one of us to ask ourselves that “wilderness question:” Are we willing to walk into the unfamiliar territory of new and abundant life or will we rather choose to cling to the pain and stay in the safe territory of our all too familiar suffering?


  1. Most of us repeat the patterns of the past without knowing what else to do. I have been blessed with a happy childhood and youth, so at least when I go back, I still find happiness but I know the Promised Land is NOW and there is no need to go back.

  2. Paul - sometimes I think we are somehow connected. I was just writing about this yesterday- how I'm scared of uncertainty. Yet this fear can unknowingly keep us stuck. Noticing my thoughts and reactions to uncertainty has helped me see how I struggle with it, yet it is this knowing that then changes how I respond. We have to be willing to turn fear into curiosity and this changes everything. Thanks Paul xxx

    1. I so very much appreciate your comments