An indispensable book

Alberto had worked with me for the entire duration of the advertising agency. He had started as a young man. As he was very dedicated to his work and always willing to learn, he gradually climbed the ranks within the company until he became general manager. We became friends. When I left the agency, Alberto stayed on with the remaining partners. We had lost touch, as often happens when routines change and different circumstances separate paths that were once so close to each other. No drama, it happens. Common interests may disappear; but true friendships never do. It was a reunion that happened by chance. I had given myself an afternoon off. Although I consider discipline to be an important factor in the creative process, sometimes breaking the routine as a renewing element works like a gentle caress, and we need to allow ourselves to experience it. I cancelled all my errands that afternoon and went to a lovely bookshop near where I lived to treat myself to a new book. It took me a long time to decide which of the many possibilities to choose from. One choice means that several others no longer existed. At least at that moment, there was a decision to go in a certain direction. Of course, choices can be revised at any time, although something along the way will always change and the route will be modified. In the end, however, it will lead to the same destination. Depending on the content of the choice, it can be as simple as reading tomorrow the book I didn’t read today. Others are more complex; the hug I didn’t give today won’t always be available, at least in this existence. Hence the complexity of time as the ephemeral raw material of an eternal work. Philosophy and metaphysics aside, I chose one of the classics by Shakespeare, one of my favourite authors. I had already read some of his texts; others I had come across in theatre productions. Several titles from the marvellous legacy left by the English playwright, an expert connoisseur of the bowels of the soul, were on the eternal to-do list, endlessly postponed. At the back of the bookshop was a cosy café. Books, coffee and peace, I had a piece of Paradise and I smiled to myself as I settled down at the table. That’s when I met Alberto again after a few years.

His eyes showed signs of someone who had been crying for many days and carried the plea of those who can no longer see the stars when they look up at the sky. Alberto explained the reason for his suffering without any questions being asked. Stricken with an overwhelming illness, in the short space of two months his marriage had gone from laughter to tears with the death of his wife. “It’s an unbearable pain, so great that it doesn’t fit inside me. I feel like it’s tearing my body apart,” he tried to describe his suffering. I asked him if he wanted to talk. Immediately, he began to narrate the existential shift of his beloved wife. A narrative interspersed with questioning and guilt. Perhaps he should have changed doctors, got a second opinion or sought alternative therapy. Perhaps he should have devoted more of himself to her, done what she wanted, travelled to romantic places, been more loving and told her he loved her every day. In short, Alberto was wracked with guilt over unread books.

My friend was stuck in a dangerous swamp. If he didn’t make the right move, he would be swallowed up by the quicksand of remorse, capable of sucking out every last drop of vitality. I considered that his wife’s illness was extremely difficult to cure. There was a medical protocol for treatment, which was followed by the doctors and the hospital. In the care of different professionals and another health centre, the same doubts would remain, only in reverse. A choice was made, the best one possible at the time. The road perceived as correct was travelled. Any other choice would possibly have led to the same fate. Alberto showed remorse in the form of resignation: “I’ll never know that answer”. I nodded and reminded him: “That’s exactly why there’s no room for regret.” We waited for the waitress to put the coffee cups on the table and I concluded: “You did the best you could at the time, that’s enough. There’s no reason to condemn yourself for something you didn’t cause. There is no negligence when the events that happen to us are beyond our sphere of intervention.”

Alberto said it wasn’t that simple. He confessed that he hadn’t been a good husband and had devoted far less time to his wife than she deserved. “I never really valued my marriage. I had a marvellous wife and I didn’t give her as much affection and attention as I could have,” he admitted. I found those words strange. As I had lived with Alberto for many years and had often been with him at his wife’s side, I knew of his adoration and idolisation of her. That is different from admiration.

Admiration is a conscious gaze towards another person, in which you marvel at their qualities and gifts, even though you also notice the difficulties they face. However, you are able to emphasise the light over the shadows. Admiration is a fundamental attribute of good relationships.

Adoration is a deviation from admiration. Adoration arises from the need to look for something in the other person that we lack when we believe we are incapable of filling our own existential emptiness. I create a harmful dependency for two reasons:

 Firstly, because I won’t find the life I’m looking for in anyone else. My life is in me and I can’t find it anywhere else. Secondly, by insisting on this senseless search, I create an illusion of completeness by feeding myself with the doses of life that the other person gives me. Dependence is created. These are typical behaviours of those who say so-and-so completes me, as if it were possible to maintain a garden with the flowers lent to me by my neighbour. It’s marvellous to live alongside people you admire, but nobody completes anyone. You have to take care your own flowers, be enchanted by your own garden and have something to offer other people. To be complete, you need to be free; to do this, it’s essential to live without any relationship based on subjugation. There is no life when you live through someone else. It’s simply impossible. Dependencies indicate internal imbalances and often lead to abuse and excess.

Idolatry is a more accentuated level of this same deviation. It appears when the other person is elevated to the status of a deity because of their supposed infallibility and unrealistic abilities. There is an absurd worship of the supremacy of the attributes of one of the parties involved in the relationship. This person becomes a god who is incensed with senseless sacrifices and praise and who worships the position in which they find themselves. In this case, the imbalance is present in both parties, creating a nefarious prison from which neither wishes to free themselves, such is their dependence on each other. Subjects and gods. They tend to shy away from anyone who might threaten to bring this painful truth to light. Many still confuse worship and idolatry with love.

All dependence arises from the belief in one’s inability to create one’s own work (in other words, to become all that one can be) and to overcome life’s inevitable difficulties. Every time you lack confidence in your strength and power, an imbalance arises. Vital energies are dispersed and a feeling of insecurity and impotence arises.

Difficulties help or hinder depending on how we react to them. When used well, they will take the individual to a point where they have never been before, leading to valuable evolutionary transformations. On the other hand, when you don’t know how to react appropriately, you’ll look for creative elements in the world that only exist within yourself. Since we won’t find them, by persisting in this foolish search, we will become dependent on the will of others, unable to generate within ourselves the essential movements for a full life. Our creative power will be atrophied. In every dependency there is a master and a slave. Both are prisoners of the same dark relationship. Sometimes there is a master and slave within the same person.

Although Alberto was an excellent employee, emotionally he had always shown himself to be dependent on his wife; she seemed to feed off that fanaticism. He never made a decision without his wife’s approval. On one occasion, he was enthusiastic about going to law school. He confessed that he had a dream of becoming a judge. He was persuaded by Laura, his wife, to give up on the project on the grounds that he wasn’t good enough to pursue a career in the judiciary, and that he didn’t have the time available for the necessary studies, as he already worked a lot. I remember when he came to tell me about his decision to abandon the project and how I tried to stop him give up on his dream. He declared himself certain of his choice on the grounds that Laura was always right: “She’s never wrong, I’m a witness to that,” he claimed at the time. He also said: “I owe everything I am to her”. Laura was the creditor of an imaginary debt. No matter how much Alberto endeavoured to please his wife, there was no possibility of settling that emotional debt. The reason was simple: neither of them would consider breaking the dependency that kept them together.

However, life has a bias towards the imponderable. The relationship of dependence had broken down with the absence of the dominating pole. Laura was no longer present on the physical plane. Alberto was free of emotional dependence, right? Wrong. What do you do when a slave doesn’t know how to live in freedom, without someone to give his life meaning? He will try to maintain his dependence at any cost, believing that he is incapable of generating and managing his own life. Intense and limitless suffering will be the way they justify their addiction. In the illusion of dignifying his love for his wife, the end of suffering would be an offence to Laura’s memory. To live without suffering was unacceptable to Alberto.

Love has many stages, from primitivism to sublimation. The more rudimentary it is, the greater the attachment, jealousy and limiting rules; the less space there is for freedom, the flowering of virtues and the construction of a genuine personality. When it reaches the elementary levels, love dispenses with suffering as an indispensable condition for its existence. The reason for this is also simple: when you reach a certain level of consciousness, no one wants to be the cause of anyone else’s suffering. I don’t want anyone to suffer for me, especially those I love the most. I want to feel happy, light and free of any pain. No matter what happens to me. I asked him to analyse it from that perspective.

There’s no room for deceit in love. There was a contradiction in the way Alberto interpreted his feelings. And a difficulty: how to explain to him that all suffering is unnecessary, that no love feeds on anyone’s pain? Alberto had to strip away the character he had created in order to live the supporting role in the life of the protagonist he had destined for Laura. What’s more, he needed to realise that no suffering dignifies anyone’s existence.

Love dignifies. As such, love doesn’t require any pain to exist.

It was a delicate subject. Through ancestral conditioning, we confuse feeling with suffering. We are led to suffer someone else’s suffering as a demonstration of empathy, compassion and mercy, under the illusion that this dignifies us. It turns out that when I suffer someone else’s pain, I increase my despair, my reason goes out of tune and I lose my ability to help; by magnifying the pain, I magnify the darkness. On the other hand, if instead of suffering, I become sensitised to someone’s difficulty, I remain in perfect balance, my perception sharpens and I manage to find one of a thousand ways to help; in this way, I bring light where there was darkness before. It’s not a question of insensitivity, but of perfect balance and the appropriate use of sensitivity.

It was necessary for Alberto to know this more enlightened side of love, capable of making the exact separation between feeling, which is always valuable, and suffering, which is never necessary. Realising this difference will always be one of the boundaries between light and shadows. Furthermore, it is necessary to realise that death does not require suffering as an exercise in dignity. It must be seen through the real prism of transformation, not as a definitive loss. Nothing is lost, everything is transformed. If I didn’t rebuild his perspectivr, all my friend’s vital energy would be sucked away by the intense and senseless pain.

There was love. There always is, whether it’s in embryo or in bloom. Alberto needed to allow himself a new understanding of love, one capable of offering a path to liberation rather than becoming a prison surrounded by the high walls of suffering.

My friend was on sick leave due to depression. I took the opportunity to invite him for a walk. We drove for almost an hour. We parked in a pleasant tree-lined street in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, paved with cobblestones and full of modest old houses. In one of them, white with blue windows and doors, there was a huge field where about two dozen children were playing. A long time ago, Alberto had told me that he and Laura had chosen not to have children because they felt that marriage was enough and they wanted to devote themselves entirely to each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Choosing to live outside the established patterns is an inalienable right and an exercise in freedom. I mentioned that I started going to that orphanage when I was going through a period of extreme sadness. The joy of those children infected me. As I came to understand love from another angle, I began to participate in the maintenance, care and referral of those children, whether it was for adoption, when they would become part of a family, a factor of belonging and security, or to provide suitable conditions and stay with them until adulthood, when they could take flight on their own wings. They were all important. Movement became a pleasant habit and one of the many sources of my own joy. I realised a little more about how to generate strength and power.

When they saw us, the children ran out towards our car. They were happy children, despite their difficulties. They felt loved. It was a very pleasant day. We played, laughed, had lunch and I was also able to talk to the staff at the home to find out more about their development. Because of my limited financial resources, I was a very modest contributor. However, this wasn’t significant there. I had learned from Madalena, the friendly lady in charge of the home, that a hug is worth more than money. Love manifests itself through the charm that turns crying into laughter. As the day went on, Alberto became more and more comfortable and, towards the end, he even took part as Captain Hook in an improvised performance of Peter Pan. When I left him at home, he thanked me very much for the marvellous time he’d had, even forgetting, if only briefly, his grief for his wife. I reminded my friend: “Sunny mornings are available even on rainy days. You just have to learn to look beyond the clouds.” He smiled and nodded.

A few days later, he called me on my telephone. He wanted to come back to that home. He was intrigued by a boy, about five years old, who was the only one to shy away from a hug and not smile at any time. He said he couldn’t understand why the boy was so withdrawn. I explained that, although he was still very young, there were already open wounds in his soul that needed healing. Alberto wanted to know how. I explained: “With love. It will always be a medicine that has no contraindications”. He didn’t say a word.

When we returned, I noticed Alberto’s attention to the boy. When he learnt his name was Lauro, his eyes watered. Over the course of his many visits, he and little Lauro found themselves in a place where neither of them had ever been, in a place unknown to both of their hearts. After a few months, Alberto returned to work and no longer resembled that sad, mournful man. Then Madalena called me. My friend wanted to legally adopt the boy so that they could form a family together.

Madalena was worried. She knew Alberto’s story. Even before she spoke, I already shared her thoughts. They were the same as mine. Adoption was a valuable and welcome path, but it wasn’t an objective in that house. The aim was the full development of each child, their abilities, gifts and virtues, as tools to equip them for life. Everyone needs to grow. There, despite the material difficulties, the children received all the necessary emotional and cognitive care. Madalena’s concern was the visible transfer of Alberto’s adoration of Laura to Lauro. Although he would receive benefits provided by a family, my friend’s distorted view of love would prevent Lauro from building the right pillars to enjoy his potential in the years to come. The boy would grow up like a god incensed by imaginary attributes. Something that in the long run could be detrimental to the formation of his personality. It wasn’t an easy decision. Everyone wanted the good of the boy. The pros and cons had to be weighed up. In this case, by choosing one book to read, the other might never leave the shelf.

After much discussion and pondering, Madalena decided to oppose adoption. When Alberto left the meeting, he came to see me; he was very angry. He said he was being persecuted by everything and everyone: “Just when I can find someone to love in Laura’s place and get rid of the depression that has taken hold of me, they deny me the right to do it”. Without realising it, his words justified the denial. I tried to explain it from another angle: “Believing that someone exists to end your sadness is a misconception that needs to be avoided. No one has that burden. You can’t give anyone a role with an impossible responsibility. It would be too high a price. It would be unfair to Lauro and damaging to his development as well as yours.” I felt the need to be firmer: “You need to grow up. Everyone does. Learning to love is one of the most important aspects of evolution. We can’t use one person to fill the existential abyss of another. Adoption is about love, not need or existential difficulties.”

Alberto objected. He swore he loved Lauro. He was being honest in his words. What he still didn’t understand was love as an instrument of liberation. His understanding of love was rooted in rudimentary concepts of dependence, as a variant of existential symbiosis. Love as a cure for emotional addictions arises when you learn to find love in all places and people, because that love originates within your own heart. Then it doesn’t matter who comes or goes. Love will never be lacking.

Alberto remained upset. In order to avoid that his annoyance turn into sadness, I didn’t let many days pass and went to look for him. He said he missed the boy very much: “We’ve created a relationship of affection. I think Lauro misses me too,” he lamented. I smiled and reminded him of a fundamental concept: “Longing only exists where there is love. A marvellous sign.” Then I proposed: “There’s absolutely nothing to stop you from continuing to live with Lauro, offering him all your love and helping to build a man with a vibrant and balanced personality.” Veiled in my words, I was also referring to Alberto’s reconstruction. I continued: “Your access to the house has never been forbidden. On the contrary, everyone misses you”, and I joked: “They’ll never find a better Captain Hook”. It was Alberto’s turn to smile. I added: “However, you’ll have to learn to love differently, without domination and dependence. For love to be broad and deep, it needs freedom. Love whoever you want, but don’t make them responsible for your needs. As they are yours, only you will be able to fulfil them. No one can achieve this without developing all their potential. That’s how we evolve.”

He said he didn’t want to. A few months passed. At the Christmas party, Alberto turned up unannounced. He was greeted with joy by the children and staff. Madalena gave him a kiss on the cheek, took him by the hand and took him to see Lauro. They had a great time. Then she asked him to go and talk to another boy who was having learning difficulties. Alberto became interested in helping Claudio, as this boy was called. That same day, he introduced him to a little girl, no more than two years old, who had been abandoned on the doorstep at night. Frightened, the little girl cried a lot. She needed to feel safe and protected. Sensitised, Alberto played with the little girl until she felt safe again and smiled. At the end of the day, my friend had a different gleam in his eye.

The days went by. Alberto learnt many stories and made many discoveries. Instead of reading a single book, Alberto allowed himself a whole library of feelings and adventures beyond where he imagined he could be and live. After a long journey, I returned to that house. Joy was oozing through Alberto’s pores. So was love. A hitherto unknown and fantastic love. He continued to lovingly accompany Lauro’s growth, now without attachments and dependencies, because he was also concerned about the development of the other children. A love without physical gods or existential prisons. By watching some adoptions without feeling any frustration, he showed that he understood that the right solutions for others didn’t have to be in line with his own wishes. Only love teaches this. Alberto had fulfilled a rite of passage.

Madalena had been Alberto’s mentor on this sacred path. By definition, sacred is everything that makes us better people; it’s the movements that leverage our evolution. To find the sacred, you have to discover your own heart. You won’t be able to find it anywhere else. Then, we find all the strength and power. Alberto had become a free man. Free from his dependencies and suffering. No-one achieves this before learning to love.

Madalena marvelled at the man’s awakening. The admiration was mutual. Love enveloped them more intimately. The joyful wedding ceremony took place in a small church in the neighbourhood and was attended by all the children in the house. There are all kinds of families. This was a large family, outside the traditional patterns. Only love allows such boldness.

That afternoon, alone with Alberto, he came to thank me: “You made me understand love”.  I denied the merit. I was honest: “I understand very little about the subject. I can’t even conceptualise love.” Then he offered me a marvellous definition that he had learnt in those days: “Love is the joy of writing a story capable of illuminating oneself and dispelling the darkness of the world”.

An indispensable book for everyone.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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