The foundations of an opinion

This conversation happened a long time ago. I used to visit Loureiro, the shoemaker who loved philosophy books and red wines, at his workshop, located in the small, charming town at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery, every time I passed through for another period of study. As the train would drop me off at the station in the early hours of the morning, I would walk through the narrow, winding streets to the workshop, which was legendary not only for the skill and beauty with which Loureiro handcrafted leather shoes and bags, but also for the unusual hours of operation. It would open its doors at the crack of dawn and close at midday, when the shoemaker would retire for lunch, always accompanied by a glass of good red wine, and then entertain himself with the books he loved so much. As usual that day, I would walk through the centuries-old streets paved with uneven stones, feeling that the sound of my footsteps would wake up the whole town in the face of the almost absolute silence that dominated the night. It was always a source of joy when, rounding the corner, I came across the skilled craftsman’s classic bicycle leaning against the post in front of the workshop. I was greeted by my friend with a sincere smile and a tight hug. Before long, we were sitting beside the heavy wooden counter with two steaming mugs of coffee he had just made. I took off my backpack and handed him a beret I had brought as a gift. He thanked me, complimented me on it and, in a joking way, looked at himself in the mirror with it. We laughed. I commented that berets were back in fashion because of a recent successful film whose protagonist wore a similar model. Loureiro smiled and said: “I’ll wear it even after the film fades into oblivion and fashion changes. I like the style and I feel good in it”.

I remarked that I had known him for a long time, and he had always dressed the same way. Fine tailoring trousers, usually black or khaki, with a white or light blue shirt, inside the trousers and the sleeves folded above elbow height so as not to get in the way of his work in the workshop. As he was tall and slender, with a white haircut that age had not consumed, he remained elegant even with the passing of the decades. He had been travelling by bicycle since the days when his generation wanted fast cars. He had never adhered to any fad which, by its very structure, is momentary and fleeting. He pondered: “What never goes out of fashion is to be a sensitive person, with firm attitudes about your principles and ethics, yet gentle, kind and good-humoured in dealing with everyone.” He took a sip of coffee and began a brief philosophical essay: “The question of fashion is very similar to the problems of opinion.”

I wanted to know what one had to do with the other. He explained: “Fashion in dress is a derivative of the formation of opinion on a given subject”. I said I understood even less. He laughed and pondered: “We wear a certain outfit for various reasons. To embellish ourselves, like the beret you gave me”. We laughed again and he continued: “Because it’s useful, like coats on cold days; because it’s practical, like shorts on a walk by the sea on sunny mornings, right?”. I remembered that there were other reasons, such as individuals wearing certain clothes to be accepted in specific social groups or to build an identity. Loureiro arched his eyebrows and exclaimed, “That’s the pont!”.

He continued: “If I wear jeans and a T-shirt it means I’m cool, if I wear a jacket and tie I’m alerting everyone that I’m a serious person, is that it?”. I shrugged and replied that, roughly speaking, for many people clothes served as the preface of a book that explains the motivations of that work. However, the preface never translates the full extent of the idea contained in the author’s words and the content hidden between the lines. “Exactly,” Loureiro agreed.

He continued: “I think it is no different with opinion. I realise that we are led to adhere to certain opinions because they are accepted in the tribes we wish to belong to. Political parties, religious segments, artistic activities, professional sectors, if we pay attention, each has a dominant bias of thought and mode of expression. By belonging to a certain social circle, we run the risk of rejection if we dare to think differently from the predominant pattern of that group.”

“In search of an identity, we lose our identity. Nothing represents us socially as much as the opinion we express, because it is the verbal manifestation of our ideas and sensibility. Without realising it, we stop being sincere because we disconnect from our essence and move away from the intimacy that each one should have with himself. We lose the truth in interpersonal dealings”.

“Capitalists, communists, surfers, magistrates, doctors, artists, athletes, advertisers, businessmen, trade unionists, among many other sectors, or, liberals, conservatives, religious, atheists, modern, frowny, cool, outdated, depending on the tribe that the individual wishes to have identification, when expressing himself in a way diametrically opposed to the common line of thought, makes the chance of ending up rejected or not accepted as a member of that group enormous and real”.

“They are not always formally expelled but put aside for not sharing the same opinions. The person is put aside, avoided, forgotten, which in practice is a silent exclusion, a marginalisation. A condemnation imposed for daring to think outside the standards set by that particular social or professional group. Everyone feels the need to belong to a tribe, either for identification or to feel protected. Somehow, we know this, because it is part of our instinct, an ancestral perception linked to the basic notions of survival, transmitted by countless generations in an almost imperceptible way since the beginning of time. Most of the time, we act without rationalising, because it is an act of the collective unconscious, a part of me that is the same in all people. It is so ingrained in our innermost being that it influences our way of thinking without us realising it. This is how socio-cultural conditioning and prejudices originate”.

I interrupted to question if he meant that not all my ideas, and therefore my opinions, were fundamentally mine. Loureiro nodded his head: “Yes, that’s it. When the voice of instinct speaks louder, it means that other, much more sensitive voices within you have been muted. The problem is that instinct is a primitive face that we still carry because it is linked to fear. We must not forget that fear is the greatest impediment to developing all the potential we have, it denies dreams and gifts, longer flights, blurs the look, confuses the feeling and narrows the thinking. In short, fear prevents us from finding ourselves and being all that we could be”.

“We feel fear for different reasons. No matter the cause of fear, its presence, by preventing free thinking, will leave our opinion contaminated”.

I said it made sense. But the cobbler baffled me: “That’s only part of the problem. What can be more intimate to a person than their feelings and ideas? Feeling and thinking are, in essence, our true identity.”

“An individual’s identity is manifested to the world through their choices. Opinion is part of the list of legitimate choices for any person.”

“However, opinion needs a clear mind and a pure heart so that it can be built with dignity and freedom.”

“No one will find their true identity until they ask themselves what are the foundations that support their opinion?”.

With his usual good humour, he joked: “My father used to say that I had an opinion on everything. My speciality was the subjects I didn’t understand”. We laughed. He continued: “But it is a great truth. We don’t understand what we think about because we don’t look for the foundations that built that idea. It’s more convenient and apparently easier. We just follow the recurring flow of the herd that, out of pedagogical necessity, at the end of the pasture plummets into a thundering canyon. Just remember not to blame anyone, the responsibility for the choice to follow the crowd without questioning yourself, without consulting all the voices that inhabit you, was yours”.

We emptied our coffee cups, he refilled them and continued: “When we are children and teenagers, we often ask permission to attend events and outings which, in the face of our mothers’ refusal, we claim: ‘But mum, everyone goes. They would reply: “You’re not everyone, boy!”. At other times, they argued: “If everyone jumps from the top of the building, will you jump too?”. I smiled happily as I remembered the many times I had experienced these dialogues with my mother. Loureiro concluded: “There was the core of a teaching that was so valuable it should become unforgettable for its enormous usefulness: discernment and identity. However, we wasted it in maturity for mere immaturity”.

“We have not yet learnt how to build an authentic and legitimate opinion”.

“Philosophy tells us that man is a product of the environment in which he lives. This idea seems right to me; but accepting behaviour as inevitable, I think it is wrong”.

“I am intensely influenced by everything around me. Good and bad. It’s up to me to filter it to bathe in clear waters or, if I prefer, to swim in murky waters. The process of making choices begins with the construction of my opinion. Hypocrisy aside, I choose this or that, whether I go this way or that, according to my opinion. It is formed according to my conscience, that is, my perception of myself and the world as I see it.”

“In my opinion, the consensus that I have reached with myself after listening to the voices that inhabit me must prevail. This is why my opinion expresses my identity to the world. Every day, I am the harmony or the imbalances of these voices. This explains the coherence or incoherence of who I am, the loyalty I have to my principles and values, to everything I love and understand as essential. A choice materialises the opinion I have on a given subject”.

“I don’t need to have an opinion on all things, only on what I have to position myself on or make choices about. However, how do I build the opinion I have on the issues that are important to me?”.

“I can obey the voice of fear: You won’t make it! Or I can follow the advice of love: If you don’t try, you will never succeed.”

“I can obey the voice of fear: Don’t try again. You’ve already hurt yourself once! Or I can follow love’s advice: Try again. It’s impossible to be happy without trust.”

“I can have opinions that make my life more comfortable, but I can have opinions that make my life more truthful. This is the cornerstone of every opinion. You can displease the professional segment you belong to, the social group you belong to and even your nearest and dearest. What you cannot do is to go against your essence, what is best in you, your own truth, which must be free from contamination. Yours and the world’s.”

“Do you remember that a part of your mind is the collective unconscious? This means that a part of you is the History of Humanity, which we usually narrate through wars, plagues, destruction, domination, among other dark events that have occurred since the beginning of civilisation. In this ancestral memory, we carry with us elements that participate more in our opinions than we are able to realise, at least until we begin the inevitable journey of searching for who we are. Only then will we realise that the pages of humanity were also written with the letters of love and the inks of overcoming. Aspects that must prevail in the elaboration of an opinion”.

“Your opinion precedes your choices”.

“The foundations of an opinion are laid in the soil of vanity or simplicity, pride or humbleness, anger or compassion, deceit or sincerity, malice or purity, impotence or will, distrust or courage, insensitivity or kindness, attachment or lightness, disappointment or faith. In short, of shadows or light”. He frowned, as he did when concluding a reasoning, and said: “Do you understand how many elements we must pay attention to and filter when mixing the mortar of the foundations of an opinion? This will translate into choices and will define the destiny of each person.”

“If you can, avoid forming an opinion on a fact that you have not experienced. The mere way in which it is narrated will be decisive in guiding your reasoning. Not to mention the manipulation of small details that make big differences. Something very common to happen. Thus, the opinion you will express, contrary to what you believe, will never be yours, but that of someone you allowed to set it up inside you. You lose your identity and your destiny”.

“Be aware of the power of influence exercised by some people. For multiple reasons, they become opinion makers by the fascination they exert on others. Do not summarily reject any idea, but do not allow anyone to steal your power of perception, sensitivity, and reasoning. Remember, your best teacher blossoms in the core of your being”.

Becoming a freethinker and a conductor of one’s own existence requires a lot of attention and effort.

I took a sip of coffee and argued: “If my opinion identifies me to other people, for it to be authentic it must reveal the innermost sincerity of my thinking and feeling. For it to be legitimate I need a deep dive and a broad search to filter out the voices that influence it. I need to understand if my opinion represents my essence or if it is only a sociocultural influence, professional convenience, and existential comfort”.

Loureiro nodded his head as if to say that I had understood. That’s when an idea occurred to me. I explained it to make sure I had the logic: “Assuming that understanding the foundations of an opinion is an effective method of knowing yourself, then in building each opinion I can find a little more of who I want to be. Therefore, I will also get a little closer to my true identity and refine my choices. So I can conclude that understanding the pillars of an opinion is an important step on the Way.” The shoemaker just looked at me. Then I asked: “Could the formation of each opinion become an evolutionary micro-cycle, provided it is properly utilised for understanding and personal transformation?”.

Loureiro put the beret he had won as a gift on his head and pretended to dance. We laughed. Then, in response, he just arched his lips in a sweet smile and winked as if I had deciphered a riddle. The lesson was offered. Transforming that knowledge into wisdom would henceforth be up to me alone.

That little workshop was a big school.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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