The game of life

The two steaming mugs of coffee were placed on the wooden counter of Loureiro’s workshop, the cobbler who loved philosophy books and red wines. The charming little town at the foot of the mountain that housed the monastery was still waking up. We hadn’t met for almost a year. We had lots of ideas to exchange. I remarked to him about something that had struck me recently: “People don’t know how to think, or they have forgotten how to do it”. The craftsman looked at me with interest and asked: “What could be more intimate to an individual than their thoughts?”. I agreed, but pondered: “No relationship is as intrinsic and perhaps more important than a person’s relationship with their ideas. It defines the music of life and the colours of the world. It establishes the laws of the jungle or the rules of the temple, stormy nights and sunny mornings by the sea. Afflictions, sorrows and discouragement or serenity, compassion and enthusiasm, depending on the balance with which thoughts are superimposed on each other, the coherence they have with their ethical principles, or the deviations led by low interests, as well as the harmony with which they live with their purest feelings or the mess that ideas become when they mix with degraded emotions.” Loureiro continued: “Are you telling me that thinking is not an easy task?”. I nodded my head in agreement: “It’s very difficult. More seriously, it’s often a corrupt relationship. At what cost does each of us prostitute our own truth?”

Without answering the question, Loureiro expanded on the reasoning: “Although this is a current issue, it was already a concern of the philosophers of Ancient Greece. Plato wrote a very interesting text known as The Ring of Giges. In it, he tells the story of a quiet, simple man who, on discovering a ring that granted the power of invisibility, went on to commit terrible atrocities, unimaginable to a citizen considered sensible and law-abiding. The question was to understand how each person would behave when they knew that their reputation and rights would not be jeopardised by committing acts that were impossible to reveal. The hypothetical ring would be an experiment for us to discover the truth about who we are not, how much of us is just the social character we play, moulded by appearances, driven by desires, or limited by fear. It’s also worth analysing how we deal with the ideas that build us up, the sincerity with which we relate to ourselves and the lies we believe to make life more comfortable. All my conflicts with the world arise from the misaligned truths and ideas I have about myself. Always.” 

He took a sip of coffee and said: “To evolve, in short, is to learn to love more and think better”.

The conversation was lively, but it had only just begun. There were several stops to both broaden and deepen the idea, when we were interrupted by the arrival of the cobbler’s nephew. Luiz was his name. He was facing an existential dilemma, the object of the disturbance that had been with him for days. The young man had a degree in psychology and specialised in psychoanalysis. He had a passion for the studies of Carl Jung. He worked in a community clinic in a metropolis where he lived, about two hours from the small town we were in. He didn’t have enough clients to maintain a private practice. As is common at the start of a professional career, he faced many difficulties, among which, mainly, financial. The money he earned was barely enough to pay the rent on a tiny flat and cover the cost of food. He felt that his talent deserved to be better recognised by people and, therefore, better paid. As this didn’t happen, his situation became increasingly depressing and discouraging. Luiz loved his chosen profession, but he couldn’t bear the enormous difficulties he was facing.

His parents divorced when he was still a boy. Luiz lived with his mother, Loureiro’s sister. Although his father had moved to another city, they kept in touch as much as possible, given their commitments and the distance. He had been offered a job with his father, who owned a lucrative gaming parlour where you could bet on everything from football to golf, basketball to boxing. As he was planning to open other branches soon, he proposed that his son learn the ins and outs of the business so that he could not only help run the shops, but also become his right-hand man and partner. It would also be a way of strengthening their father-son relationship, as well as strengthening the bonds of love that had always united them. Luiz had never shown any interest in his father’s business, nor was he attracted to a daily routine of probabilities and predictions. However, the factor that threw him off balance was the chance to share in the company’s high profits. A detail that could change his existence. He would have access to desirable consumer goods, some of them very expensive, allowing him to lead a lifestyle that most people covet. Making money to pay the bills would no longer be a concern. The price would be abandoning the career he had chosen for himself. A profession that he loved, but which caused him serious material needs. Stunned, he went to spend a weekend at his mother’s house, who also lived in the small, charming town that housed Loureiro’s workshop. After a long conversation, without any progress, she asked Luiz to go to his uncle, who was famous for lining up ideas as skilfully as he sewed bags and shoes. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping for days,” he confessed after recounting the dilemma he was facing.

“If, on the one hand, the offer is tempting, on the other, throwing away so many years of study scares me,” he revealed his agony. I asked him if his father could provide some financial help, however small, until his career as a therapist took off. Luiz explained: “My father is a good man, but very pragmatic. The difficulties he has faced have led him to a harsh view of reality. He believes that if he does this, he won’t be helping me, but weakening me.” He paused and concluded on his father’s way of thinking: “If I go to work with him, I’ll have access to all the amenities on the world; if I don’t accept, he won’t be upset, but I’ll have to overcome the obstacles without help, as he says he learnt to do.”

I thought with Luiz: “Shouldn’t you talk to your father to show him that his proposal would lead you to abandon the exercise he admires so much: becoming a strong person? Wouldn’t giving up the profession that you love, have dedicated yourself to for years and have chosen to embrace in order to work in a business whose only attraction, at least for you, is the ease of financial gain, despite the flashy external adornments and aura of success that money can provide, be precisely a choice for intrinsic weakness?” I sipped my coffee and continued: “Wouldn’t the determination to face up to difficulties be a suitable gym to strengthen the muscles of the soul?”.

The young man shook his head and explained: “I’ve already tried to talk to him, but I haven’t managed to make much progress. My father understands life in a very peculiar way and believes that the world only respects those who have money. For him, the difficult switch to a more lucrative professional activity, leaving aside a youthful preference without economic results, would be a necessary exercise in strength and the threshold into adulthood. What’s more, living in this complicated environment of clever punters looking for the easy money of betting will make me a more calloused, experienced and difficult man to cheat”. There was resignation in his eyes when he said: “He’s a good father, I have no doubt of his love and he’s willing to help me, but in his own way.”

Loureiro, attentive to the dialogue, watched in silence. When we took a break, the cobbler refilled my mug, put another one on the old wooden counter for Luiz, took a sip of coffee and said: “The angular choices, those capable of leading us to the necessary evolutionary transformations, are about the decision between prioritising existence or valuing life. Simple but difficult questions.”

The nephew asked his uncle to explain further. The shoemaker was didactic: “To prioritise existence is to adopt a behaviour that values material comfort and social privileges; despite the sharp ethical discourse, it doesn’t understand or doesn’t want greater responsibility, at least at that moment, for the spiritual evolution. On the other hand, valuing life is a daily commitment to the infinite virtuous cycles, always willing to learn, transmute, share and move forward; a practice that often forces you to adopt concepts that go against your usual patterns.”

 “A simple way to understand the difference, as long as you’re honest with yourself, is to answer a single question: What gives you pleasure is what makes you feel better or makes you a better person?”. He paused for Luiz to get his head around the idea and continued: “Those who are eager haven’t yet realised the difference, those who are attentive can already see the answer.”

Loureiro drank some more coffee and went on to explain: “Contrary to what many people imagine, these dilemmas aren’t only present in more significant moments like the one you’re living through, of more apparent changes, with clear repercussions on the comforts or difficulties you’ll face, depending on the decision you make. This question arises every day, in moments that are considered trivial, in choices that we consider to be of lesser importance. These are issues that go unnoticed, even though they also define routes and destinations. We rob ourselves of our free thought and prevent ourselves from being all that we could be when we press the button to go into the insensitive mode. We still don’t understand that when we stop feeling the pulse of life at the same pace as the movements of the soul, we distance ourselves from who we are in essence and, as a consequence, from the transformative power we possess.” He drained his mug before concluding: “No one can achieve this without learning how to think for themselves, until they understand what the real stakes are. We won’t understand the meaning of the game as long as we don’t know in advance the outcome of the dispute between the comfort of the body versus the freedom of the soul, the pleasures of existence versus the happiness of life.”

“Until one day we realise that the happiness of life is impossible without the freedom of the soul. To do so, you have to be who you came to become, bearing in mind that the sacrifices necessary for this are sources of strength and faith, in the certainty that no one can love themselves without loving life equally.”

Luiz argued in his sweet way: “I understand what you’re saying, Uncle. But nobody wants a life of sacrifice for themselves.” Loureiro shrugged and said: “Once again, it depends on each person’s ability to deepen the truth so that they can broaden reality. The morphological origin of the word sacrifice comes from the combination of two other words, sacred and office. Ancient monks believed that sacred labour was weightless, because it brought with it the lightness of transformation. Sacred is everything that makes us better people. From then on, the choice becomes simple and the difficulty disappears. Decisions that were difficult before become inexhaustible sources of joy”.

The young man remained silent. I had the feeling that his gaze revealed a decision that had already been made. The cobbler ended the conversation with a valuable question: “We have to understand who or what we are really betting on. If we pay close attention, we’ll see that life is a game with predictable results. Only the unwary are disappointed by the bets they make.”

We chatted for a few more minutes about lighter subjects. Afterwards, Luiz thanked us for the conversation and said goodbye, promising that he would really think about the decision he was going to make. A few months later, I learnt that he had given up his career as a therapist to work alongside his father. I haven’t heard from him since. Except twice, through the news, when he married a famous model in an exclusive and trendy seaside resort. It was a short and turbulent marriage. He also had an alleged involvement with a group that rigged football results, in an investigation in which he was cleared due to lack of evidence.  

Ten years have passed since that meeting in Loureiro’s workshop.

I was in the monastery when I was told that a man was looking for me. I found him sitting on a stone bench in the inner garden. Yes, it was Luiz. In a way that I can’t explain, I wasn’t surprised. His hair was grey, an accentuated shade unusual for his age. He hadn’t yet reached his forties. Dressed in elegant clothes and with gentle manners, he smiled when he saw me and gave me a tight hug. We decided to talk right there, among the roses cultivated by the Elder, as we affectionately called the Order’s oldest and most beloved monk, left as one of his many legacies. Luiz explained that he would like to take part in our studies and, in due time, become a monk, as the members of the Esoteric Order of Mountain Monks (EOMM) are known, a philosophical brotherhood with no religious affiliation. I wanted to know why he wanted to become a monk. He referred to the last few years of his life: “It was a lost decade”.  I argued that no experience is lost if there is perception and sensitivity, because they will help, in other ways, as levers for transformation. It’s not uncommon for us to have to go through the situations that arise, as they are part of the individual process of maturing.

Luiz was emphatic: “I went in search of the honey of life and found the sourest period of my existence”. He looked at me with melancholy and confessed: “I had access to all the things that an immature man believes he needs to be happy and I learnt about the superficiality of relationships and the bitterness of mismatches. Castle doors opened as hearts closed. I couldn’t be somebody. I lacked a kind of authenticity seal, something I once had when I was that humble therapist looking for a place in the sun. Although I lacked material conditions and had many difficulties, there was breadth and depth in being who I was. I miss that man who had all the things he really needed, but didn’t know it yet. In truth, I lacked nothing except to learn to see and to think. I shook my head as if to say that I understood the reasons and remembered: “You found exactly what you went looking for. No more, no less.”

Luiz agreed: “That’s what my uncle meant when he told me that life doesn’t surprise you at the end of the game. It’s us who don’t always understand the outcome of the game.” Then he wanted to know: “Do you think I can recover my essence? I’ve moved away from managing the bet house, now I want to prepare myself to take back the essential part of myself that I abandoned on the shelf of a day I’ve never forgotten. Answer me honestly.” I smiled with intense joy. Few things cause me more admiration than seeing someone searching for themselves, overcoming who they were and looking for who they want to become. I explained to him: “Yes, I believe that you have never stopped being a psychoanalyst, because this has always been your essence, although you have been away from it for a long time, it will always be possible to retrace your path.”

“Yes, as long as you’re willing to use your experiences to establish the certainty of what you no longer want in your life. Mistakes have that power, to deconstruct illusions, dispel tormenting doubts, close roads that lead to nowhere and then switch on a light where before there was only darkness.” I paused and reminded Luiz of the words of his uncle, a shoemaker by trade and philosopher by profession, spoken years ago in the workshop: No one can achieve this without learning how to think for themselves, until they understand what the real bet is. We won’t understand the meaning of the game until we know in advance the outcome of the dispute between the comfort of the body versus the freedom of the soul, the pleasures of existence versus the happiness of life.

Then I concluded: “Do you understand why we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes? There are no better masters in our lives. Don’t be ashamed of them. It was them, your mistakes, that broadened your awareness, deepened your truth, and transformed the boundaries of the reality that exists in you today. Don’t regret them, thank them.”

Still unsure if he understood my answer, he was objective: “Does that mean I’ll be accepted as an apprentice in the Order? Even with a complicated past full of bad choices?”. I was honest: “We’re not a court, but a temple dedicated to knowledge and overcoming. In the monastery we don’t count who you have been, but we take into account who you are trying to be. Everything else is landscapes or stories.”

I told him to get his suitcase in the car while I arranged accommodation for his first period of study. I watched him walk away. Luiz seemed to be bouncing around like a kid on a sunny morning. He was back in the game.

“In truth, we’ve never left the game. We just need to better understand its meaning” I thought to myself. I remembered the parable of the Prodigal Son; after getting to know the world, Luiz made his way back home. He returned to find himself.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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