The backpack, the shortcuts and the distance

This story happened a long time ago. I had just finished another cycle of studies at the monastery. Hitching a ride on a market lorry, I made my way down the mountain and since there was still a lot of time until I had to take the train, I decided to visit Loureiro, the shoemaker who loved books and wine. Philosophy and red wines were his favourites. I was delighted to see the doors of his workshop open, hidden away in one of the narrow, winding streets with centuries-old cobblestones that characterised the old, small and cosy town. There was no sign on the workshop’s façade. A simple bronze plaque nailed to one of the doors with a cactus inscribed on it was the only reference. I remember that in my studies with Li Tzu, the Taoist master, he taught that while shadows are usually characterised by spectacular scenes; virtues are usually discreet.

I found Loureiro concentrating on finalising a custom-made leather backpack, sitting behind the heavy wooden counter. When he saw me, the elegant shoemaker gave me a sincere smile and stood up for the traditional tight hug with which he welcomed his friends. Before long, we were sitting at the counter with two steaming mugs of coffee that had been put through the strainer to commemorate the meeting. As I’ve always used a backpack rather than a briefcase to carry my work material, I remember being delighted when he showed me the one he was making, which was already being finalised. It was full of compartments, with specific places to store everything from pencils to notebooks, documents to mobile phones; chargers, credit cards, pens, notepads, keys, metro tickets, among other things. Nothing could be left loose in that backpack. I confess that I’ve always considered it a mystery how women manage to find all the thousand things in their huge bags without any dividers. Often without looking, just by touch. Just one of the infinite enchantments that women cause me.

I tried to persuade Loureiro to sell me the backpack. There was no way. It had been designed by a well-known architect for his specific needs. If I wanted, he could design a model for me. I ordered one straight away. We were talking about the modifications I wanted when the owner of the backpack arrived at the workshop. His face had been much publicised in the media because a project he had designed had been approved for the construction of the new headquarters of a famous museum. He was a friendly, cultured, elegant and polished man. I had the distinct impression that fame had not destroyed his simplicity. The shoemaker asked him to sit down and have a coffee with us. The backpack would be ready in a few minutes. And so it was. After chatting about a few things, as he had been friends with Loureiro for a few years, he felt he was free enough to confess about a situation that had been bothering him. He had been constantly attacked on social media. In the country where he lived, he was accused of plagiarising certain aspects of his successful project. What annoyed him most was the way his ideas had been decontextualised by his detractors to be presented to the public in a distorted way. He knew that not all criticism is fair, just as not all praise is deserved. However, in this case, it wasn’t about praise or criticism. Because of the way it had been conducted, the debate had become dishonest.

In his view, the origin could be one of two things. Envy or politics. Perhaps both. The mere thought of running for office in the municipal elections had occurred almost simultaneously with the result of the competition that awarded his project a prize, to the detriment of several other projects made by even larger and more famous architectural firms. “They’re treating me like I’m an imposter. This is a lie. Every creative process seeks inspiration from various sources. Treating this as plagiarism doesn’t strike me as a conceptual mistake. It’s evil,” he vented.

I exchanged a few thoughts on the subject with the architect until he added: “What strikes me most is the fact that so many people, who know nothing about my life, reasons and motivations, or little about the technical details of the project, express themselves so aggressively, as if they needed to destroy me in order to continue living,” he said with sincere astonishment.

“They need it,” Loureiro intervened in the conversation with his charming way of surprising with his disconcerting ideas: “Because of the lifestyle they have adopted, they desperately need judgements, which are always superficial in their reasons and brief when analysing the possibility of defending the truth. We still live in archaic societies in these respects. We are nothing more than stone-throwers. We believe ourselves to be modern and evolved, as if access to technology were enough to make us better people.”

“We are not very different from the people of the Middle Ages who, on Sundays, waited for some unfortunate person to be led from jail to the square where he would be hanged. Along the way, they offended, spat and threw excrement at the condemned man. They believed they had such rights. They didn’t care about the truth of the facts, the correctness of the judgement or the reasons why the individual was being massacred. They just wanted to humiliate and execrate. They needed to beat someone up. Nothing else mattered. Even today, it hardly matters. We do it every day on social media.” He frowned and said: “The ease with which I promote my judgement, the speed with which I throw other people’s lives into the fire, is directly proportional to how much I dislike who I am. Of course, it’s unconscious. But that’s all it is.”

We needed the shoemaker to expand and deepen that thought. He said he needed another mug of coffee at the risk of not feeling capable. We laughed. Loureiro explained the idea from the beginning: “I’m not who I think I am, it’s a valuable Freudian concept. Although the conscious mind is capable of recognising many of the mistakes we make, some of them recurrently, various other personal difficulties are still kept in the dark cellars of the mind, the unconscious, which manifests itself in such a way that we find it difficult to recognise its decisive role in our choices, words and behaviour.” He paused briefly to emphasise: “The fact that we don’t realise those things, or even deny them, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in us. It just means that we don’t know ourselves.”

He took a sip of coffee and continued: “Nobody likes to see themselves as a bad person, flawed and capable of doing evil, even if it’s small. That’s why, at all times, we construct tortuous reasoning in an attempt to justify our mistakes, in the false belief that they were necessary in specific situations. It was a necessary evil, we repeat to fool ourselves. No evil is necessary. We do evil when we can’t do good, when we can’t offer the other cheek, the cheek of light, the one that those in darkness don’t know. Often, we are the ones in the shadows. We make the darkness bigger because we don’t know how to react to a difficult situation.”

He drank some more coffee and continued: “The problem is that few people are ready to recognise this oscillation between light and darkness that is common to transition processes. After leaving one point, but before reaching another, we go through moments of indecision, doubt and imbalance; this is part of the maturing of the spirit until it is sure of the right movement that will guarantee its progress. In the meantime, you will relapse into erratic practices, dark vices and even, from time to time, oppose the light you admire so much. Becoming a good person takes a lot of work. It requires many virtues. I can’t go on without admitting the evil that is still present in us. That’s impossible. The shortcut is to deny the evil that I still practise. How can I build a good image of who I am, for my own approval, without the enormous effort of the constant transformations that are inevitable for evolution? By using another shortcut: destroying the image of others.”

He emptied his mug and said: “The practice is simple and shallow. By destroying the image of others, I convince myself that most people are bad and worthless. With so many deplorable people in the world, by antithesis, I force myself to believe that I’m a good person. After all, I’m better than them. At least, that’s how I delude myself. I live within the mirage that my cloudy eyes have created in the pursuit of my existential comfort.”

“As every lie has an expiry date and, in these cases, it’s very short-lived, I need to judge and pass judgement every day to feed the addiction I’ve become dependent on. Yes, evil is an addiction that, as such, needs constant nourishment. Judging others is one of them.”

“However, all shortcuts lead back to where we started. Demolishing other people’s images doesn’t have the strength to raise even a trace of the truth about who I would like to be.”

“The ease of passing judgement shows how little satisfaction an individual has with himself. I destroy the world because, in truth, I need to divert attention from my incompleteness. I destroy the world because, in truth, I consider myself incapable of building who I would like to be. Destroying is infinitely easier than building. This is the unhealthy shortcut of popular judgements.”

“Those who are truly focussed on the enormous effort of building themselves don’t waste time or energy on the nefarious exercise of destroying others.”

They don’t so it, Loureiro explained, because it’s a typical endeavour of Sisyphus, an important archetype in Greek Mythology, who was considered the most cunning of men, even managing to outwit Death on a few occasions. For all his malice, he was condemned to push a heavy marble stone to the top of an enormous mountain. Every day, as he neared the summit, an irresistible force pushed the stone down, forcing him to start his useless labour all over again for eternity.

The cobbler clarified: “Nobody becomes a good person by believing that others are bad. It’s a useless endeavour, an exercise that doesn’t make you better and won’t be successful. Note that, like Sisyphus, those who judge the world consider themselves to be more intelligent and capable than others. They’re wrong. In believing themselves to be more virtuous, in front of wiser eyes, they have a huge lack of virtues. No amount of reasoning, no matter how intelligent, will achieve a useful and necessary purpose, or reach the light, if it is not wrapped in love. Without loving yourself, you can’t love anyone. This is the core of so much dissatisfaction, disappointment, judgement and condemnation.”

“Self-improvement is the true manifestation of self-love. I improve myself as an exercise of love for myself. Those who live to condemn the world show how stagnant they are. They want to be handed perfection on a platter without worrying about delivering the ideal they demand. There are many shortcuts that lead nowhere.”

“I become a character far removed from reality. I live off the lies I like to tell myself. I’m like a stone thrower who needs to break any remnants of mirrors capable of reflecting the truth that I’m not ready to see. These reflections appear in my eyes through other people’s attitudes and achievements. I destroy them because of the discomfort they cause me. I destroy them through addiction: I need a lot of bad people to believe that I’m good. Like a contemporary Sisyphus, I don’t move from where I am.”

Loureiro asked for more coffee. Then he asked us: “What is the distance between good and evil?”. The architect and I exchanged looks of astonishment. We said that the distance was enormous because they were two diametrically opposed poles. The shoemaker said nothing, he just looked at us. We felt we hadn’t reached the crucial point. Loureiro teased us again: “What is the distance between yes and no?”. Silence was our confession. We didn’t know. The shoemaker clarified: “The same answer applies to both questions. You.”

“You are the distance between good and evil. You are the distance between yes and no. We live who we are. This is the exact measure of the world, whether it’s mine or yours. We interpret people and situations according to how we look at them. We judge where we should only observe and understand. We condemn when the distance between good and evil is short. We condemn when the distance between yes and no is close. We do this because good and evil still confuse us; because yes and no are still mixed up in us.”

Loureiro spoke as he made the final adjustments to the backpack. When he had finished, he handed it to the architect who, delighted with the result, thanked him. He then commented that he was considering legal action to repair the moral damage he had suffered. The shoemaker advised against it: “Fights only serve to spread the traces of hatred. Only the weak suffer damage. Conflicts and sorrows keep prison bars closed for as long as they last. Like Sisyphus, we end up condemned to useless endeavours”.

The architect asked if he shouldn’t do anything. Loureiro said. “Yes, do it. Fly beyond the reach of the snipers, where the stones won’t hit you”. Astonished, the good man asked if he should move to another city or even another country.  The cobbler clarified: “That’s not what I meant. The body can live anywhere. It’s the spirit that takes flight. Freedom is an attribute of the soul”.

The cobbler picked up a sheet of paper from the counter, scribbled a few words on it and handed it to the architect: “Always keep it in your backpack,” he explained. It was a short poem:

Trust what you already know

And move on.

Don’t mind the roars

And noises of the world.

They know nothing about you.

It doesn’t matter that nobody wants to follow you.

It matters that you know where you’re going.

Go quietly.

Go in peace.

Overcome with emotion, the architect hugged the shoemaker. The poem would remain in an easily accessible compartment in his backpack for him to use whenever he needed it. We then chatted about other matters until it was time to leave.

A few weeks later, I received my backpack by mail. It was beautiful, with the thousand compartments I had idealised. Immediately, I began to pack it, fitting all my day-to-day junk into its proper place. That’s when I discovered a compartment that I didn’t remember being part of the original design. When I opened it, I found a note: “To keep judgements. Every time you feel the urge to do so, resist. Keep it here until you realise how unnecessary it is. Then throw it away forever”.

Loureiro was an exceptional craftsman of shoes, bags and backpacks. But above all, he was a marvellous craftsman of ideas.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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