The Boy and the Piano

My favorite books are the ones that surprise me. It might be their unusual humor or grace, but typically it is the story and, more importantly, the people in those stories who reveal something special to me. It might be describing the taste of fresh lemon meringue pie in some nondescript diner, or an unexpected and subtle insight about how we choose to live our lives.

Unfortunately, I don’t come across books like this very often, but I thought I should share one here.

Breakfast with Buddha

Roland Merullo, my favorite author, wrote “Breakfast with Buddha” with that rare mix of story-telling, humor, and thoughtfulness. Reviewed as, “A laugh-out loud novel that’s both comical and wise … balancing irreverence with insight,” the story begins as Otto Ringling, a confirmed skeptic, is tricked by his sister to take her guru along with him on a trip to their childhood home.

Six days on the road with an enigmatic holy man who answers every question with a riddle is not what Otto had planned. But in an effort to westernize his passenger – and to amuse himself – he decides to show the monk some “American fun” along the way. From a chocolate factory in Hershey to a bowling alley in South Bend, from a Cubs game at Wrigley Field to his family farm in North Dakota, Otto is given a remarkable opportunity to see his world – and more important, his life – through someone else’s eyes.

Partway into this journey, Otto reads a book his monk companion had written, and he pauses to read one passage several times. It’s not necessarily about “spiritual situations,” but it also made me stop to read it several times because I think it applies to many – too many – situations in our lives:

For many people, many, many people, the spiritual situation is like that of a young boy who decides to take up the piano. This boy likes the piano, likes the sound the keys make when he touches them, likes the feel of the ivory against his small fingers. Perhaps he knows someone, or has seen someone, who plays well, and this inspires him.

As he grows older, he continues to play and to practice. As he practices perhaps someone criticizes him in an unkind way, or perhaps he begins to see that he cannot play as well as the person who inspired him, that he makes mistakes, that his hands do not always work the way he wishes them to work, that it requires effort and sacrifice to improve.

By the time he is a young adult, he is somewhat accomplished at the piano—some of this came from natural ability, some from his love of music, some from practice. He plays well, sometimes at gatherings of friends or family. But then, as he grows older, he decides that, even though he can play well, he will never play very well. He will never play perfectly. He is not good enough to be a concert pianist, just as, in the spiritual realm, on this complex earth, he believes he will never be good enough to satisfy his idea of a God who looks over him, so he stops really trying to do so, stops thinking about such things.

Probably he does not even form these thoughts in such a way. He just sets up, between him and the next level of piano playing—the next level of his interior life—a kind of invisible barrier. He makes a limit where there is no actual limit. This is not bad. He is not an evil man. Just the opposite, he is a good man, but he builds this limit the way you would build walls around a room, and then he lives there, within that room, not completely satisfied but not knowing what he can do about his dissatisfaction.

He grows old. He waits for the end of his life, for God to pass judgment on him, and chases as many decent pleasures as he can while he waits. This is just the way life is, he says to himself. This is as good a player as I will ever be. He would, in fact, like to play the piano better, but what keeps him from venturing outside that room is a kind of fear, the idea that he might fail, that people might mock him for his ambition, or that he would then not be the person he believes himself to be. But where did this idea of who he actually is come from? In the spiritual realm, or, if you prefer these words, in the emotional or psychological realm, what is he denying himself by staying inside these walls?

Visit Merullo’s site here for more of his work.

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