Two monks lived together in a monastery for decades. In time one of them died, and within months the other followed. The first monk awoke to discover that he was in heaven, and never had he experienced such happiness. But he realized that his friend wasn’t with him, so he took to traveling the heavenly realms to find him. This search, however, did not produce one trace of his partner.
“Oh dear,” the monk now thought, “If he isn’t here, then he must be caught in some sort of purgatory.” So off to the lower realms of eternity the celestial monk traveled, and sure enough, that’s where he found his friend: He was now a worm, digging in a pile of manure.
Taking no thought for what his friend did to deserve such a fate, he said to himself, “I’m going to help my friend out of this situation. I’m going down there to that manure pile and bring him back to heaven so he can be as happy as I am.” With that, the monk commenced to digging.
Before long the worm wiggled out and asked roughly, “Who are you?” The monk answered, “You don’t remember? I am your friend, and I’m here to take you to heaven where life is wonderful!” The worm barked, “Get lost!” The monk was stunned and began describing heaven in glorious detail to convince the worm to go with him. “No way,” came the grumpy answer, “I am staying here.”
This was more than the heavenly monk could stand. So he grabbed hold of the worm and started tugging and pulling, begging and pleading the entire time. But the harder he worked at it, the harder that worm clung to his pile of manure. There was no way he was going anywhere.
The above story is an adaptation of a Zen tale meant to communicate an important point: If someone isn’t ready to change his or her destructive ways of thinking, acting, and behaving – if they are truly committed to the manure pile – even guarantees of a happy, blissful life will make no difference whatsoever.
And the more you dig in to “help” that person, to show them the error of their ways, to pull and tug on them so they will see how good life could be, the more tenacious their grip on the compost will become. Simply, you can’t make someone change. It’s not within your power to do so.
In the Christian tradition, we have a similar story. It was told by Jesus and is known as “The Prodigal Son.” A young man took his fortune and ran away to a “far country” and promptly exhausted his enormous wealth. He ended up working a hog farm, living in a pig pen. Meanwhile, his loving father remained at home – waiting – and never chased the boy down, though he must have known the disaster that had overcome his son.
The father was wise enough to know that he couldn’t make the boy change. The prodigal had to “come to the end of himself,” to quote Jesus, and even a magnanimous, gracious father with all the help his son would ever require, could not do that for him. Attempting to intervene before the young man was finished with the pig pen, would have only resulted in frustrating failure for all parties.
I suspect we all have people in our lives that we want to “help.” Addicts. Codependents. Emotional junkies. Friends or family who go running over Fool’s Hill every chance they get. It’s hard to practice restraint with these we love, but there is no other choice, because we can’t change them, rescue them, or make them see the error of their ways.
We can only wait, hope, and pray that they, like the prodigal, will reach the end of their rope, admit that life has devolved into a manure pile, and then “turn their will and life over to a Power greater than themselves.” And when this happens, and not a second sooner, we can be there to help dig them out.