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Who Moved My Cheese? is a book about change–and how to deal with it–by Dr. Spencer Johnson, co-author of the famed One Minute Manager, a break-through management concept from the eighties.

But it has deeper significance as well, which I will discuss in a moment.

For those of you who do not know the story, I will recap the simple fable that has taken organizations by storm and is now a classic. The concept seems mind-numbingly simple; but bear with me until the end, because it has some serious implications for the spiritual life.

Once upon a time, there were four little creatures who lived in a maze: Hem, Haw, Sniff, and Scurry. Sniff and Scurry were mice and Hem and Haw were little people. Every morning, the four creatures would go in search of cheese. The mice used a simple trial-and-error method of finding cheese: they quickly ran down every corridor in the maze, checking to see if it contained cheese or not. The little people used their brains and analyzed the situation to find cheese. One day, they all hit the jackpot: they discovered Cheese Station C, which contained a seemingly infinite quantity of cheese!

Every day after that, Sniff and Scurry would race to Cheese Station C to get their morning cheese. But Hem and Haw’s life changed. Although they had no idea where the cheese came from, they became very attached to it, and assumed that it was personally created for them and would always be there. They became arrogant and lazy. They set up their homes at Cheese Station C and placed all their happiness in the availability of this cheese.

One day, all four creatures woke up to discover that the cheese was gone! Sniff and Scurry didn’t stop to think about this fact, but immediately began to search for cheese, running around the maze as they had in the past. It wasn’t long before Sniff and Scurry had found an even larger quantity of cheese at Cheese Station N, somewhere they had never been before.

It isn't fair!Hem and Haw, however, began to complain. “Who moved my cheese?” they wailed. It isn’t fair! How could this have happened? They waited until the next day, hoping that the cheese might miraculously return. After all, it was their cheese! Suddenly they noticed that Sniff and Scurry were nowhere to be found. They wondered whether the mice might know something they didn’t. No, that could be possible: after all, they were only mice! Hem and Haw decided to analyze the situation, but they found it inexplicable. Haw wanted to go out in search of new cheese, but feared failure and the unknown. Hem had grown so comfortable living right next to the cheese for so long, that he didn’t have the energy or willpower to brave the dangers of the maze.

Haw finally saw the humor in the situation and began to laugh at himself: here they were, sitting around waiting for “their” cheese to return, yet they had never noticed that the cheese had been getting old and the supply had been steadily diminishing for weeks prior. They used to be adventuresome and industrious, yet now they were just sitting in the empty cheese station grumpy and complaining.

Haw realized that he was going to have to overcome his fears and venture out into the maze in search of new cheese. He began to run through unexplored corridors of the maze, searching for new cheese. Suddenly he realized that he felt better than he had in a long time, and was alert and ready to experience life. Finally, he found himself at a new cheese station–Cheese Station N—piled high with many different kinds of cheese. He also found his furry friends, Sniff and Scurry. He hoped that Hem would soon find his way to the new cheese station, since Haw had left a trail showing the way, should Hem finally venture out into the maze. Haw left short anecdotes on the walls of the maze, summarizing his insights along the way: Change Happens (they keep moving the cheese); Anticipate Change (get ready for the cheese to move); Monitor Change (smell the cheese); Adapt to Change Quickly (learn to let go of old cheese); Change (move with the cheese); Enjoy Change (savor the adventure); and Be Ready to Quickly Change Again and Again (they keep moving the cheese). [1]

We can certainly use this story as it was intended, to teach us the principles of change and how we can learn to adapt. But I believe it is even more valuable as a spiritual allegory.

All Christians, regardless of their state in life, are called to holiness, to friendship with God. But for us to grow in intimacy with God, we have to detach ourselves from creatures. We are called to love God above all else: “‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27).

This is not easy for us. Because we are fallen creatures, we are inclined to pursue things that are not good for us. Our intellect is darkened and our will is weakened. As Saint Paul says, “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). Just as Hem and Haw became attached to the cheese, we find it much easier to become attached to creatures (material things, success, power, money, other people’s opinion of us, our own will) than to God alone.

 

Everything we have—beginning with life itself—is a gift from God!Yet so easily we think that we are somehow in charge, that we deserve a certain standard of living, that we are entitled to everything we have. Hem and Haw began to view the gratuitous presence of cheese as something they were entitled to, and they could not accept its disappearance.

 

Gradually, like Hem and Haw, we become arrogant, self-sufficient, and egocentric. We fail to thank God daily for his many gifts. When we are not grateful, we become less joyful, less childlike and trusting in God’s providence, and more fearful.

In Dr. Johnson’s story, Hem and Haw became angry and anxious. They were angry that their cheese was taken, and they were overly fearful about going in search of new cheese. Attachment to material things, to my own will, or to what other people think about me ultimately prevents me from being truly free. Thy Will, Not Mine, Be Done

The greater the attachment to this cheese, the less virtuous Hem and Haw became—they became lazy, fearful, and bitter. They became anxious and wondered when they were going to get their cheese again. We, too, sometimes think that when we don’t seem to have an immediate response to our prayers, that God is punishing us, or that he is being unfair. We think we are entitled to our cheese! We forget that God’s ways are not our own: “The wind blows where it will…you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…” (Jn 3:8)

The antidote to such fear and anxiety is detachment. We are all called to practice a spirit of detachment from things, from our own vanity, from what others might think of us, and even from our own desires and preferences. This does not mean that we despise the good things of God’s creation. We appreciate every gift God has given us, but we do not want to be so attached to them that they get in the way of a pure love for God and for our neighbor. A spirit of detachment helps us grow in love.

This is why, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple.” [2] The evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) help us detach from our inordinate attachments—those things that stand in the way of our pure and total love for God. Some are called to the consecrated life, and they will profess the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Yet all of us are called to the “perfection of love.”[3] Even as lay men and women who do not make formal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, we can try to capture in our lives the spirit of these evangelical counsels. We can practice the spirit of poverty by tithing, or giving God the “first fruits” of our paycheck. We can try to live more simply, with fewer material goods, calling to mind the many Christians all over the world who do not have the same standard of living that we enjoy. We can practice the spirit of chastity by practicing self-discipline in terms of what we see and hear, by reigning in our imagination, and keeping our hearts pure.

Obedience is the greatest and most difficult virtue we can practice, because through obedience we freely surrender our own will, in order to be obedient to God’s. Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). We also can seek to know God’s will in our daily lives, and joyfully surrender to it.

So, like the little creatures in the simple allegory, let’s try to detach from everything that keeps us from loving God more perfectly. . . and surrender to the moving of the cheese.



[1] Spencer Johnson, M.D., Who Moved My Cheese?New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1998. p. 74.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 915.

[3]Lumen Gentium, no. 40.

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