Be careful what you believe

It was very early in the morning. The small town that lies at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery was still asleep. Well, not all of it. I walked through its narrow, winding streets, paved with stones that, though worn out, had withstood the sun and rain for centuries. I noticed a few windows with their lamps lit, perhaps early risers like me and Loureiro, the elegant shoemaker who loved red wines and philosophy books, a master at sewing leather and creating ideas. His workshop was almost mythical, either because of its unusual opening hours, the criteria for which was only the shoemaker’s will, or because of the conversations and philosophical clashes that took place inside it. It was always a reason to rejoice when I turned the corner and saw Loureiro’s classic and well-kept bicycle leaning against the post in front of the workshop. It also meant that I could enjoy the perfume of leather and coffee that permeated the shop. I was wrapped up in my thoughts, as I walked alone among the streets and the silence of the city, when I came across a graffitied wall. I was surprised by the fact that I had never seen anything like it in that quiet and well-kept place; even more, I was struck by the content of the sentence written: be careful what you believe!

Soon my thoughts changed and began to revolve around that idea, but not for long. As I turned the corner, I saw the bicycle leaning against the post and rejoiced. Then I found the doors of my friend’s small workshop closed. What, at first, might seem incoherent, made some sense. There was a small bakery in the next street; it was possible that Loureiro was there to enjoy the first batch of bread of the day. I found him at the last table, enjoying a slice of fresh bread covered with the region’s famous cheese. And a mug of coffee, of course. I was welcomed with a sincere smile and a strong hug by the elegant white-haired shoemaker, who, even during working hours, was wearing black trousers with a fine tailored lilac shirt. The sleeves were folded up to the elbow so as not to hinder his movements. The shoes were of his own manufacture. Duly ensconced at the table, with a steaming cup of coffee in front of me, I commented on how sure I was of finding him there when I came across the closed doors of the workshop. The bicycle had been the clue left by him. Loureiro smiled amused and joked, “Maybe you’ve found your true gift, Sherlock.” We laughed and I added that, despite the unusual hours of the shoe shop, the cobbler was quite predictable. He was again amused and remarked: “Be careful what you believe”.

That got my attention. I complained about the same sentence that, by chance, I had seen painted on a wall a while ago. I did not like the fact that they had done that, a blemish on the city that was always so well cared for. Loureiro pondered that the graffiti artist may have tried to call people’s attention in times of digital social networks, where a lot of information of various trends and multiple interests circulates, not always exempt or pure, in which there are many certainties and few truths. Moreover, the content of the warning scribbled on the stone wall was ancient, contemporary and eternal. At that moment our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of two young workers who came into the bakery to have a coffee before work. They were polite young men, but as the room was almost empty, we could hear them discussing politics. Soon there would be presidential elections and they showed opposite views on the subject. Both were sure of their opinions; their certainties were antagonistic when analysing the same fact. Less than ten minutes, between entering and leaving the bakery, seemed enough time to break up a friendship due to absolute convictions. When they left, Loureiro reminded me: “Be careful what you believe”.

I regretted the disagreement of the boys and said that I was not interested in politics. I thought the subject was too boring. No doubt there were much more interesting things for me to occupy myself with in life. Loureiro agreed: “No doubt, I don’t like it either. However, Plato warned us that men who do not like politics have their city governed by those who do. This often brings unpleasantness”. He paused for a moment to comment: “General unpleasantness often causes unpleasantness in relation to existence. Avoid one so as not to get lost in the other.” The friendly waitress left more slices of bread with melted cheese on the table. When our conversation seemed to pick up, we were interrupted again by a couple. They sat down at a nearby table. They owned a well-known artisanal jewellery store. They had customers from several countries who came to them when they wanted a specific and unique piece made. He was a goldsmith of rare talent; she managed the business. The man’s voice was altered. Indignant, he complained about the disappearance of a packet of money he had kept in his desk drawer after receiving it from a client. They had a few employees, however, only his secretary had access to his office. He remembered that she said that his son’s school fees were overdue and the medication used by her father was very expensive. It made perfect sense and he said he didn’t have the slightest doubt. The wife pondered in an attempt to persuade him not to register the occurrence at the police station in order to point out the secretary as a suspect. She claimed that someone else could have taken it. She asked him to give the employee the benefit of the doubt. The goldsmith said that he would grant the benefit of the doubt if he had any doubt; he was sure about the authorship of the theft. The secretary should answer for the crime committed. He would go to the police station as soon as she finished his coffee. At this moment, his wife burst into an uncontrollable cry that caught the attention of everyone in the bakery. It took a while for her to calm down. The waitress brought a cup of chamomile tea; the woman drank it slowly and between sobs. She mumbled some words that her husband could not understand. He asked her to calm down and repeat it. The wife took a deep breath and said: “It was me”. Before her astonished husband she said that she felt great shame, but that the remorse of allowing someone else to receive the blame for an act that they had not committed would be even greater. She explained that her son, her husband’s stepson, a boy with an uncontrolled life, needed the money. As she wanted to avoid arguments at home, in a moment of weakness she had taken the money. The goldsmith said nothing. He showed no trace of rancour, for he loved his wife. He had a lost glance beyond the windows that showed the first rays of the morning sun. With his elbows propped on the table, he passed his hand slowly and incessantly over his head, as if the gesture helped him to think; he did not know what to think; he did not know what to say to himself. Minutes ago, he was determined to incriminate the secretary. They finished their coffee without further conversation and left. Loureiro looked at me and said: “Be careful what you believe”.

That morning the bakery insisted in its role as a classroom. Then two old ladies came in, friends since adolescence. They occupied the table where the couple had previously been. They asked for two cups of coffee with milk and bread with butter on the griddle. As one of them had hearing problems, they talked in a tone above discretion. Listening what they were saying was inevitable. They were revolted by the opening of a temple that professed a religious doctrine different from their own. They had heard horrible stories about how the followers of that religion behaved. They swore, one to the other, about the practice of satanic rituals. If no action was taken, soon the whole city would be cursed. They maintained that they had to start a movement for the place to have its doors closed by the authorities. They began to trace a strategy of war to defeat the cult of the evil, as they defined the ceremonies of the new temple. They would go to the radio stations and newspapers in search of the population’s support; the city’s salvation depended on them. Without them hearing, I told the shoemaker that I knew the monk in charge of the temple. He had been several times in the monastery of the Order; he was a simple, generous, cultured person of peace, who ministered a philosophy based on love of neighbour and goodwill towards everyone. The talk of those old ladies was nothing but a sad slander; the acts they wished to perform were evil. The worst thing was to realize that they believed they were doing good with those attitudes. Loureiro shrugged his shoulders, as if he had already warned them and whispered: “Be careful what you believe”.

I began to understand the idea he was transmitting, but I remembered that we need certainty to live and make the choices inherent to life. The shoemaker corrected me: “We need the incessant search for truth; and the one who leads us to truth is not certainty, but doubt”.

I told him he was mistaken. The great masters of humanity were full of certainty. Loureiro disagreed again: “No, Yoskhaz. Doubt is humble; certainty is typical of pride and arrogance. We need few certainties and many doubts. Doubt is a mark of the wise. For me, few certainties are enough: the power of love and the strength of virtues. Let everything else be doubts for me!”

“Doubt allows you to change, to grow and to advance. Certainty stagnates and makes you stagnant.” He took a sip of coffee and added, “We are afraid of doubt, when, in truth, we should fall in love with it. Doubt brings questioning, the improvement of reasoning, the improvement of knowledge. Otherwise, if I know everything, I no longer need to learn anything. Certainty is the full pot that can´t fit anything more, at the risk of collapsing; doubt is the empty amphora, thirsting for life”.

“Pay attention to fools and tell me: are they individuals filled with certainty or those drenched in doubt?”. It didn’t take much thought. Of course, the cobbler was right. It is necessary to investigate, to go deeper, to always know more. This is only possible for those who live in harmony with their doubts. Yes, doubt is the friend and ally of the wise. Not by chance, Socratic philosophy, the basis of Western thought, was based on rhetoric, which consists of a constant dialogue between certainties and doubts, in answering a question with another question, stimulating depth, not only as a healthy way to build knowledge, but in the search for truth, according to the ruler of the expansion of each person’s consciousness. Truth is an inner journey; doubt is a powerful fomenter of this journey.

The craftsman remembered something important: “The great characteristic of the human being as a rational animal, different from other species, is the ability to formulate reasoning to alter and improve reality. The other species, to a greater or lesser extent, live basically by instinct, where there is no room for doubt. In short, doubt is atypical in wild life and precious in the development of civilization and the evolution of humanity”. He took a bite of bread and cheese and clarified: “Certainty is admired by those who, lost in themselves, feel abandoned on the seas of existence and, desperate, try to cling to some conviction like a castaway needs a lifesaver to avoid drowning. Doubt teaches you how to swim”.

“Certainty does not always indicate wisdom; certainty is sometimes far from the truth. History is full of sad mistakes made by certainties that seemed unshakeable.” I asked what to do when faced with a choice when I am full of doubts. Loureiro replied with his wonderful simplicity: “Always choose to act with love, simple as that.” He paused to add, “We´re always mistaken due the lack of love, never for excess.”

“Virtues are indispensable guides of the Way. Use them at will! They will be valuable in drawing up a personal code of ethics that aids choices and prevents evil in the absence of love at specific moments. By understanding that we are poor in love and rich in doubts, we will find the primordial balance between will and serenity.”

Loureiro emptied his cup and concluded: “We are imprisoned in prisons of various kinds; cells upon cells; all without bars. The shadows, the prejudices, the rampant passions, the painful memories, the cultural, social and ancestral conditioning are cruel prisons because they do not allow us to perceive the chains that prevent us, not only from freedom, but also from peace, dignity, happiness and love in all its amplitude”. He signalled to the waitress to bring the bill and finished: “However, no prison is sneakier than certainty. It is guarded by a jailer disguised as a hero: yourself.” He frowned and reminded himself: “Be careful what you believe. Not infrequently, certainty is the invisible bars of an existential prison”.

Good-humouredly, he warned: “Finally, don’t forget, please, to always doubt me too.” We laughed.

The waitress brought the bill. When Loureiro opened his leather bag to get his wallet, I saw inside it a can of aerosol paint. I remembered the graffitied stone wall near there. He blinked one of his eyes like a naughty boy. I laughed at the almost eighty-year-old boy and thanked him for the valuable lesson from the priceless and unpredictable philosopher.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic

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