Once there was an old man who used to meditate under a large tree on the bank of a river. One morning, as he finished his meditation, he saw a scorpion being carried away by the current. The old man reached out to rescue the drowning scorpion. The scorpion immediately stung him.
Every time the old man tried to hold it to put it into safer ground, the scorpion stung him again and again. His arms became swollen and his face distorted by pain.
A passer-by saw the old man struggling to save the scorpion and cried out, “You stupid old man, you are risking your life to save an ugly, poisonous creature. You just might kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful animal!”
The old man turned his head slowly, and calmly looking the stranger in the eyes, answered, “My friend, because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”
There is an on-going debate about whether human beings are guided by a selfish gene or our brains are wired to help others; whether we think mostly of ourselves or whether it is our nature to help others.
Neuroscientists claim that there is a network of brain regions involved in understanding other people. This makes us capable of perceiving the mental states of people around us. We see somebody wince, our brain responds as though we ourselves are experiencing the pain.
The healthy brain is evolved to reward compassion, cooperation and service. Without this social conscience, we see a society whose members are so focused on self-aggrandizement they have little or no notion at all of the common good. Even strict Darwinians accept the self-sacrifice involved in promoting the well-being of the community, to the point of dying for others.
Sociopaths are those incapable of feeling empathy. They feel only their own pain, care only for their own needs. They are holed up in their own selves and remain totally self-absorbed. They do not care what happens to anyone other than themselves. The brain circuits that make the rest of humanity able to feel the actions, sensations and feelings of others have been blunted and short-circuited, like in the brains of many who hold political office today.
I lived among scavengers in Smokey Mountain for more than 30 years. I suffered much from ungrateful people and from sociopaths. It was their nature to sting like scorpions but I remained true to my calling to be a fisher of men, as today’s gospel recounts.
I remained in the garbage dump, not so much because it was my nature to save, but because I wanted to flee from the cosmic darkness that enveloped my soul when I was studying for a doctorate in Rome. I was in grave danger then of becoming a sociopath. I have been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate when ideas are comprehensible, quantifiable, coherent. Being addicted to rationality, I yearned for definitions at all cost. Years of study had honed the ability to dissect isolated words with such intense application that I often lost interest in their relevance. I became puffed up by the academic pretense of disinterestedness and dis-involvement, and desired only to be totally objective in order to arrive at the truth.
And then the darkness came. Overwhelmed with the certainty that I was doomed, I was left teetering at the unseen edge of a dark infernal abyss.
Everything became dry and hard, as if all graciousness had withdrawn from the universe. This lasted for weeks, an obscure ache that was both mental and psychological—a festering Angst, a lingering sense of cosmic futility, some sort of free-floating anxiety that had no specific cause. It was mentally devastating and physically debilitating, this mixture of ennui, sorrow and despair that overwhelmed me.
I became dead tired, tired of the books and the libraries and the museums and the white wine and the oceans and the mountains, the Milky Way, the Horsehead Nebula and all the black holes in space.
Most of all, I became tired of myself.
We no longer describe this kind depression in spiritual terms. As we have learned more about genes, hormones, and neurotransmitters in brain research, we discuss depression overwhelmingly in biological, pharmacological terms. We have to distinguish the illness of depression from the darkness that is a part of human vitality that we can embrace.
The whole-body, whole-mind exploration of what it means to be human will open up new ways to address the dark side of human experience.
And that is why I became a “fisher of men” in the garbage dump.
Compared to the darkness weighing heavily upon me, the scorpions and ungrateful animals, the drug lords who threw a grenade in my convent, were as nothing. The overpowering stench, the unbearably sickening sweet sour smell of putrefaction in Smokey Mountain was hideous and fascinating at the same time. It hit you like a punch in the gut. The smell clung to your clothes and skin and very difficult to wash away, making your stomach curl up like an armadillo protecting itself from a predator’s assault. All these were as nothing compared to the cosmic emptiness I experienced in Rome. The reward I sought for the compassion and service I did to the scavengers was to have the cosmic darkness lifted by the God who is consuming fire.
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Some people are called by God with a whisper, some are called with a shout, others are called with a song. I was called by a desire to flee from my “titanic glooms and chasmed fears,” as Francis Thompson described in his poem, The Hound of Heaven.
No matter how God calls you, even fleeing from the darkness within, God will always surprise you with joy.