The bet

It was raining. Heavy clouds filled the horizon. It was cold in the mountains. I was at the monastery for another period of study when I received a phone call informing me of a friend’s departure for the Highlands. I have a good relationship with death; I’ve never treated it as a loss, but as an indispensable point of mutation. The end of a cycle of experiences, in which you need to prepare for the start of a new journey. I know it may sound strange, but I see death as an act of love between life and everyone, because of the regeneration it brings. However, George hadn’t been just any friend. The best friend? He was certainly among the best. We had many problems during our time together, which spanned decades. However, in the most difficult times, I could always count on the help of his generous hand. He had taught me a lot about love. George took genuine joy in helping people, something that was part of his daily life, it was an essential virtue of his kind soul. He was a man of contrasts. A diligent professional, he taught me the value of dedication and discipline at work; a gambling addict, I often saw him tearing up his ethics to support the voracity of his sad addiction. He made a fortune in work and practised a lot of charity; he was deeply loved by a small crowd. He lost two fortunes gambling and left behind sorrow, grief and debt.

To summarise a person in a few lines is to diminish their life, an injustice that no one can do. Nobody’s story can fit into a book. We are so much more. Seemingly ordinary situations don’t always measure up to the passions that shake existential structures. That’s how it is with you and me. There is an unknown universe within each one of us; there will always be precious details that will be forgotten, leaving the analysis impaired. For these reasons, a fair assessment by anyone else is impossible, even when made by a close friend. Alongside George, I had witnessed remarkable chapters of love and wisdom, of shadows and mistakes, of falling and overcoming, which I always told my daughters were some of the most incredible scenes I had ever seen. When I needed both a good and a bad example, I turned to George’s stories. There were many.

Once, by chance, I bumped into George in the street. He told me that he was going to buy a car from a world-famous brand. He was very happy, because ever since he was a boy he had dreamed of driving one of the models from this car manufacturer. He invited me to accompany him. On the way to the dealership, as we passed the gates of a prestigious university, we came across a man with sad, watery eyes. Leaning against the wall, as if his legs were unable to support the weight of his suffering, his face expressed a deep despair. As it was his habit to talk to anyone he met, George approached him and asked if he needed help. The man explained that his daughter would have to drop out of medical school in the final term, as he had been unable to renew her enrolment because he hadn’t paid any of the fees for the previous two years. Only paying off the debt, plus interest and fines, would resolve the situation. The invoices in his hand showed the cause of his suffering. In tears, he confessed his defeat. He didn’t know how he would tell his daughter that her childhood dream had been interrupted. Perhaps it was over. The debt was huge. In addition to the aggravating factor that the medical course was very expensive because of the many material and technical resources it required, the university was also very expensive because of the excellent quality of its teaching. Adding up all the factors, the result was a considerable amount of money. Gently, but without hesitation, George took the tickets out of the father’s hands and asked me to stay and talk to the man. He would try to find a way to help. He promised not to be long. A few metres down the road, he went into the bank on the corner and returned a few minutes later with all the instalments paid off. In disbelief and in tears, the father didn’t know how to thank the angel whose name he didn’t even know. George just asked him to remind his daughter, as far as possible, never to forget those who couldn’t pay for her expertise, but who needed care, attention and healing just like everyone else. He added that if the young doctor were to ask the same of all her patients, each to the extent of their abilities and attributes, together they would build an enormous network capable of bridging the world’s distances. He hugged that astonished and happy father, took me by the arm and we left. We never saw the man again, nor did we have the chance to meet his daughter. This was of no importance to George; what mattered to him was the love that had been sown.

As we drove away, I asked him if he had used the money from the car to pay for the girl’s college. He nodded. I commented that I didn’t think it was fair of him to give up his dream in favour of the girl’s dream. George explained: “There are wishful dreams that bring satisfaction to the immature ego; there are quest dreams that speak of the purpose of a soul in transformation. To understand the difference is to understand one of the meanings of life. By giving up something smaller in favour of a larger construction, I have illuminated not only the young woman’s road, but also my own.” From there, we went to a car hire centre. For an afternoon we rented a car just like the one he would no longer be buying. It was the best he could do with the money he had left over. With a mischievous smile, as we strolled along the city’s beautiful waterfront, he commented: “My dream of driving a Mercedes has come true”. He paused and added seriously: “The greatest of desires is not worth the simplest of quests.” George was dignified, happy and at peace. He was a free soul.

On another occasion, he fell in love with a woman who had only been widowed for a few months. It was an overwhelming passion on both sides. They lived together on the beaches and in the bars frequented by their friends. I met them at a mutual colleague’s birthday dinner. I heard they were travelling to Las Vegas the following week. They were very excited. I was surprised. I knew George’s business wasn’t going well. He had debts, many debtors and the threat of bankruptcy looming. As I had known him for a long time and had watched him get back on his feet countless times, many of which the most experienced financial analysts would bet on a definitive bankruptcy, I thought he had got back on his feet once again. George resembled a mythological being who had become accustomed to being reborn from chaos. His ability to make money was impressive; his ability to lose everything was even greater. Like a surreal character from a dramatic film, when the days were sunny and calm, he would go out looking for storms.

That day, I called him into a corner to fulfil my duty as a friend. I told him that it looked like his business was back on track. On top of this, he was living a beautiful romance. The time had come for him to let go of the damn gambling slavery that had brought so much suffering into his life. I remembered his previous relationships, which always ended in turmoil because of the instability that his behaviour caused. I remembered that his first marriage had ended when he had to give up the flat where he and his wife lived, because he had lost it the night before at a poker table.

George smiled compassionately, like a soldier stubbornly teaching his general the secrets of battle, and told me that he was going to Las Vegas precisely because his business was doing so badly. He needed money to pay off debts and modernise the printing company he owned. Only then would he be able to keep his business afloat and stay in business. He had nowhere else to borrow money. Without understanding, I asked him with what money he was travelling to play in casinos. George said he would do three things in one. His current girlfriend had received a good sum of money as a beneficiary of the life insurance policy left by her deceased husband. It was in a savings account earning derisory interest. He’d talked it over with her. He would take this money as a brief loan. They would go on their honeymoon to Vegas. Taking advantage of the trip, he would use a method he had been studying for years to win at baccarat. With the same conviction as someone who believes that the sun will rise every morning, he assured me that it couldn’t go wrong. By his reckoning, the money he would win at the casino would pay off the loan with double interest, cover his travelling expenses and even pay off the printer’s debts. I told him it could only be a joke. George looked at me with disdain. His eyes seemed glazed over. There was no other truth, he was serious. Addiction had such authority over his reasoning that, in these moments, ethics and wisdom were trapped behind the bars of lies. A lie that he insisted on believing until he came face to face with his own crumbling reality. I asked him to re-evaluate his decision. I argued that there was still time. He was harsh with me, like someone who is pestered by laughable and absurd arguments: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do”.

Nobody does. Life is about teaching.

As I had seen on other occasions, a few weeks later I found George destroyed. There were only a few pieces left of the proud and certain man from their last meeting. Like a repeat of an endless tragedy, the casino had left the couple penniless. Well, actually, it wasn’t the casino, which is only an entertainment for those capable of using it as such, when you spend the derisory sum of a sandwich in an attempt to pay for a dinner with wine. Nothing more. So the loss is worth the risk. Gambling is justified as mere entertainment for the price of a cinema ticket. Otherwise, it’s like walking alone and unarmed into an open savannah believing you’ll defeat a pack of hungry lions. The most painful thing for George was that he knew this. His infatuation with the young widow had ended at the airport before they boarded their flight home. The girl felt cheated and was deeply hurt by my friend. He admitted that she was right, while at the same time trying to explain where his infallible method of defeating the casino had proved fallible. With sincerity, he swore that he would reimburse her losses as soon as he could. He was a trapped soul.

Shadows and light alternated constantly and, no less interestingly, in extreme degrees. As if a period of deep, destructive darkness alternated with another of light as intense as it was rare, capable of illuminating the world. Two diametrically opposed extremes in the same man. At times an angel, when he could do good, at times a devil, when vice ruled. Translating George into so few words makes me unfair to his story, but there were many memories and thoughts that came to me on that rainy afternoon in the monastery after receiving the phone call informing me of his transition to another existential sphere. I loved my ambivalent friend. No one had ever helped me so much in the most difficult moments of my life, offering me good advice, because he was a man of peculiar wisdom, but also money, because he was extremely generous. At the same time as he had built so many beautiful bridges, enabling countless people to cross, he had wounded the hearts of several others and, no less seriously, done himself a great disservice. A story written through marvellous chapters interspersed with deplorable scenes. I had the feeling that two legions were following in his wake, those who loved him and those who loathed him. Although it deserves many more chapters, this had been his life in a nutshell.

As it was raining heavily, I told the monastery that I was going to walk in the mountains. As the poet says, I like to cry in the rain so that no one can see my tears. There was no suffering, but a strong and overwhelming feeling of gratitude for everything I had learnt from George. In his own way, he had taught me about love and pain; falling and overcoming; desires and quests; virtue and vice; right and wrong. About good and evil. Whether it was the way he knew, or the way he managed, it was his way.

No wonder My Way, in the voice of Frank Sinatra, was his favourite song. He sang it every time he needed a balm to ease his pain. George suffered a lot. He suffered in silence, like someone who is fully aware of who is responsible for so much suffering. On the other hand, he had a tremendous joy in him. Whenever he could, he did good wherever he went. And he did it with unusual frequency. As is typical of people who dialogue with silence, I never heard a complaint from him about anything or anyone. Not even when a friend turned out to be disloyal, nor did I hear him lament the unpleasant outcome of a scene in which he had been wronged. He had compassion for people’s mistakes, like someone who asks for tolerance for the mistakes he can’t avoid in himself. There was love and wisdom in contradiction to the pathology and stupidity of addiction. All in the same man.

I went hiking in the mountains. That day, I allowed myself to follow an unknown path. I walked for a time that I don’t know until I came across the entrance to a huge cave. As the intensity of the rain had increased, I decided to take cover and wait inside. I sat down on a rock and watched the manifestation of nature and its forces. Then I heard a voice behind me: “Hail, Windstorm!”. I was startled. Only one person had ever called me that. Startled, I turned round, not believing my eyes. It was George with his unmistakable smile and genuine friendliness. As if he was aware of my astonishment and disbelief that he was there, he explained: “Before I leave, I’ve been given permission for one last explanation of all the contradictions that have driven my existence.” He paused before continuing: “I chose to talk to you. Unlike many other good friends I’ve had, I was always sure that, despite our many quarrels, I always knew I could count on you. You never turned your back on me, even when you were full of reasons to be upset by my behaviour. I wish you could understand me better; you deserve it. And maybe offer some understanding to all those who couldn’t comprehend my mistakes.” I considered that his story was also full of successes. I said that I would remind the world of this other side of his personality, although contradictory, of incredible and peculiar beauty.

George sat down in front of me and said: “A person’s life is worth the love they sprout. I’ve loved a lot, but not in the way most people know how. I’ve always done everything my own way.” Then he reminded me: “How many times have we hugged?”. I searched my memory, but couldn’t think of a single one. I, who love hugging people for whatever reason, had never realised that I had never hugged George. He explained: “I haven’t learnt to hug. I’ve never said I love you either.” He paused as if searching his heart for reasons and confessed: “I loved people too much. My love consisted of turning sadness into joy and renewing hope in their hearts. Nothing made me happier than helping someone cross an abyss in which they could only see falling and death. I put them on the other side without bothering to receive any gratitude. The light that came on in me was always the best and only reward. That’s how I was able to love”.

I questioned why he allowed his gambling addiction to bring so much darkness into his days. George explained: “Time is a very personal road. Long lines, dangerous bends, tiring climbs, refreshing descents. Landscapes that are sometimes fascinating, sometimes frightening. Stretches of speed, others where you have to hit the brake. Although it’s different for each of us, it’s like that for everyone.” As if he knew my thoughts, he said: “Time is a road full of contradictions”. I interrupted to say that it didn’t have to be like that. I argued that contradictions signalled stubbornness in the same mistakes. George frowned and disagreed: “It was the way I knew how to do it”. He shrugged, smiled resignedly and said: “My Way”.

The good friend asked a rhetorical question: “Where does the road of time take its travellers?”. Without waiting for an answer, he clarified: “To know yourself. You have to identify your own hidden fragments in each stretch of the landscape, both in the effort required to climb and, in the courage to take advantage of the intensity of the risks contained in the fast curves. Otherwise, it will be a wasted journey.” He paused before continuing: “But this knowledge needs to be useful in order to justify the journey and honour the road. What would that use be?” He waited for me to say something, but as I didn’t say a word, he continued: “Transformation is the answer. My contradictions are consistent with my desire not to change the way I am. Doing good requires no effort for those who have goodness awake in their souls. I believed that doing good would make up for my mistakes”. In fact, for George, generosity was a genuine act of an authentic virtue. He continued: “It’s not like that. It’s no use building castles only to destroy them. I lived in defiance of life and time. I was sure that I was capable of getting back on my feet every time life left me in ruins. That was the game; that was the bet”.

George was able to bring sweetness to the bitter flavour left by his mistakes. Like someone who has kept a lamp of intense light to get out of the darkness, every time his addiction left him destroyed, kindness led him back to clarity. Then he would lose himself again in the dark cellars he never wanted to leave. Inside my friend there was a symbiosis between light and shadows that fed off each other. They were the reason for his joys and sorrows, as if one were indispensable to the survival of the other. This was the keynote of his existence and the incoherence of the choices he made throughout his life. Kindness was his rebuilding magic every time the gambling destroyed him. The power of this virtue was supposed to drive his evolution. Countless times, in scenes of disconcerting beauty, with no vested interest, he sowed good wherever he went just for the joy of the smiles he provoked. These moments enchanted his soul. The next moment, instead of keeping up the pace to go further, he would veer off the road to bask in the swamp of the deleterious and fleeting emotion of what the next card would be.

I wanted to know why he had never freed himself from this existential stage. George confessed: “I should have done it. But I never wanted to.” I asked him why he kept oscillating between light and darkness throughout his existence. I added that I knew it wasn’t for money, because those who are attached to money aren’t keen on the risks of betting, whether in casinos or on the precipice of financial market games, such as the Stock Exchange and its related derivatives.  George clarified: “Contrary to what many people believe, people like me don’t gamble for money. In fact, we despise money. So much so that we spend it without difficulty. We don’t attach the slightest importance to the values of the world, its honours and achievements.” Then he revealed: “Our real bets are like challenges to the gods”.

I asked him to explain further. George clarified: “We look for shortcuts to divinity; we challenge life. We want to be gods; we suffer from the Fallen Angel Syndrome. We want God’s power to do good. In our own way, by our own rules and intentions. Money is a good tool for this, especially when you consider that people are in serious material need. We look for the light, but we use the tools of the shadows. We defy maths, wisdom and fate. We bet against the truth. Sometimes we sow smiles, sometimes we spread suffering. We lie to ourselves when we say that the latter justifies the former. This is the hidden game played by habitual gamblers. However, no harm is necessary. This is the mistake that prevents us from winning the game: there is no game.”

He looked at the clouds that were breaking up into rain and said: “No one will beat time as long as they refuse to cross its road. Despite all the good I’ve done, my slavish consistency to the shadows has prevented me from continuing to my destination. The secret lies in undoing time through the traveller’s transformations. In order to beat time, it is essential to improve all the time. For this, love is essential. But love alone is not enough. You need to enlighten yourself”.

I told him to relax. I hadn’t met anyone who loved people so much. Nor had I ever met anyone who had such a peculiar light of their own. I was being sincere. He asked me: “If you can, when you meet those who have been part of my story, especially those who have been hurt by me, tell them that I loved them too much. In my own way. That’s how I knew it”.

George was telling the truth. He stood up and opened his arms for a hug. It was the first and the last. But it was the best of all.  It was tight and authentic. It sealed the meeting of an existence. Our way. Without saying a word, he turned and walked into the cave. It was time to start again with what he had learnt. Mistakes are the best teachers. I noticed the moment he disappeared into the blue light.

I returned to the monastery whistling the melody of My Way. I was grateful that it was still raining. No-one would notice my tears.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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