I dropped off the subway at a station in a trendy neighbourhood of a well-known metropolis. I was on holiday and headed to a famous museum to see an exhibition on Ancient Egypt, a civilization that fascinated me for its advances and mysteries. There were many people sitting on the steps leading to the entrance of the museum; some were resting, others were waiting for someone. The typical autumn cold meant that everyone was bundled up. I was walking up the steps when, to my surprise, I recognised Valentina, a nun from EOMM, also a poetess and an aerospace engineer, protected by an elegant garnet scarf and a grey felt hat. Seated, with a cup of coffee in her hand, she seemed amused and delighted to observe the people passing by. The joy of the encounter was mutual. Without delay, I asked where she got the coffee. With her chin, she pointed to a little cart on the pavement. I went there. The vendor received me with a smile and handed me two cups of coffee. I told him I only ordered one. He explained: “The other one is for Valentina. She has been sitting there for a long time. The coffee must have run out or got cold.” He charged mine and said hers was a courtesy. I returned to the museum staircase, handed him the cup, sat down beside her on the stairs and told the nun about the unusual dialogue I had with the seller. I asked if she knew him from somewhere, as he called her by name. She said, “I met Juan half an hour ago when I went to buy coffee and I commented on the medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that he carries on his necklace. Then we started talking. He was born in Mexico and has a very beautiful story.” I wanted to know the reasons for this beauty. Valentina recounted a series of difficulties Juan faced in surviving. They were obstacles that were common to millions of people all over the world. My friend explained: “Like so many, he is the hero of his own story. He crossed the border as a teenager. In the beginning the difficulties were enormous. Today they are less severe, although they are still huge. As if life wanted to test his courage, will and faith. Every day he faces different and severe obstacles, but he overcomes each of them with joy, without even thinking of giving up. Even so, he keeps on sowing smiles through the kindness with which he treats everyone.” She looked at Juan with admiration and invited me to make an observation: “By overcoming difficulties, he conquers himself. He awakens strength, discovers powers and goes beyond what he once imagined”. It was impossible not to agree with the beauty of that perspective.
I asked if she had already visited the exhibition. “Not yet,” she replied. I told her we should go together. The nun nodded, smiled and said: “In a moment. Let me observe some more. There is more information and knowledge on the streets than in any museum.” I remembered that the exhibition was about a civilisation without a paradigm for all the innovations and advances they had provided. So many, that much of that culture had not yet been revealed. Valentina agreed, in part: “No doubt there is a lot of value in an exhibition about Ancient Egypt. It is not smart to deny the truth. But the truth has subtleties and distinct aspects. To understand them is also intelligence”. I said I didn’t understand. She explained: “I´m not denying the value of a rich exhibition like this, but the collection shows material fragments of a civilization, that is, isolated aspects of a culture”. She paused briefly, as if searching for the best words and continued, “It is like an inert body, devoid of soul. Like a necropsy, it serves as a study and allows many understandings, but the most important part is not present, preventing a broader and deeper understanding”. With a movement of her hands, she showed me the movement of the people around us and said: “There is more information and knowledge on the streets of any city on the planet than the content collected by the best-equipped museum”.
I questioned whether she didn’t consider the importance of museums in the construction of knowledge. Valentina shook her head: “I didn’t say that. So much so that I am here to appreciate this wonderful collection. However, we waste the best sources of knowledge: people.” I argued about the inexplicable advances of that civilization from the point of view of mathematics, astronomy, written language, various inventions, the mysteries of the construction of the pyramids, the sphinx and the exiles of Capela. Valentina agreed with me: “Yes, without any doubt, it was a fascinating civilisation that left many of our questions unanswered. In some respects, they seemed to possess a knowledge beyond ours, even though some millennia have passed.” She looked me in the eye and asked: “Have you ever realized the universe that exists inside each person?” Without waiting for an answer, she concluded, “Observing an individual teaches me much more than appreciating a mummy.”
“Human behaviour is the most precious source of knowledge there is. Starting with yourself. Within each person is the seed of evolution. Therefore, observing others teaches me a lot about who I am. Not by the harmful practice of judging, because in truth we have neither the right nor the capacity for this. But to know ourselves better, to look as if in front of a mirror, to understand the reason for the disturbances that the behaviour of others provokes, to correct mistakes, to overcome difficulties, to love more and better. The same principles and laws that govern the universe also apply to any individual.”
“Look around us!” she exclaimed. There were dozens of people scattered on the museum steps. Many sitting, some going in, some coming out. A huge queue to buy a ticket, plus vendors and pedestrians on the pavement. She turned to me and asked: “Look at the surrounding landscape as if it were a showcase of the exhibition, what catches your attention the most?”
Many things caught my attention. So many that I lost myself and could not concentrate on any of them. Valentina insisted: “Go on observing, without hurrying”. Then she did not let the concern steal the focus of her request: “There are still many hours left before the museum closes. Think calmly, we have plenty of time”. After a few minutes, I risked a commentary: “Most people are wearing headphones or fiddling with their mobile phones.” The nun arched her lips in a slight smile and exclaimed, “Exactly!”
“Do you realise that people are living more in the digital universe than the real world?”. Without waiting for an answer, she added another question: “Why do they do that?” And she continued with the questionnaire: “Why has that universe become more interesting than this world?”
I shrugged my shoulders as if stating the obvious and then pondered: “The Internet and information technology have made people’s lives much easier. Access to knowledge and information became much faster. We used to spend an afternoon at the library, but today, in a few seconds, we can access the same content on our mobile phone screens almost anywhere we are. We pay our bills, watch films, chat with people, who have become closer through social networks. It has also become an interesting and cheap source of entertainment.” Valentina agreed: “Yes, it is true, they are wonderful tools for integration, entertainment and human development. There is no doubt about it.” She made a circular motion with her hand to show the people around us and asked: “However, in order not to become abuse, the use of something needs limits. What do people seek with this behaviour when living immersed in the digital universe or, in fact, what do they want to avoid with it?”.
As I took my time to speak, she answered: “People”. She paused again so that she could concatenate the idea and continued: “People want to avoid each other. Any relationship has a much higher degree of complexity than the stages of the most sophisticated games. The digital world in its games and films do not generate heartbreak or disagreements, because they have their rules well defined. Relationships, don’t. Relationships are imponderable, because reactions become unpredictable due to the mysteries existing in the depths of personal universes. However, despite the unthinkable difficulties, there are the greatest riches. Both of love and of wisdom. No game can offer this.”
I said that people have been connecting a lot through social networks. This time Valentina disagreed: “Although there are unthinkable possibilities in this wonderful tool, like meeting old friends or giving voice to people who before did not have such a far-reaching channel to express their opinions, the misuse still generates abuses. But this is normal and tends to find its own adjustments over time, even if the practice of misusing a good thing never ceases. But I refer to another aspect of social media. They have facilitated the creation of masks. There is perhaps no other period in history that people have created so many characters for themselves. With this, they distance themselves from themselves; when they distance themselves from their own essence, they increase the difficulty to relate with others. They unlearn. Today we have characters interacting with characters. And, amazingly, even though they are good and virtuous characters, they manage to disagree”. She shrugged and continued: “Appearances do not translate the essence. Without realizing it, people are increasingly distant from the world, because contrary to what it may seem, when they distance themselves from themselves, they distance themselves from everyone. For this reason, despite the intense and fantastic possibility of interaction, access to information and knowledge, I have the feeling that we are further away from the truth.”
“If on the one hand the digital universe is an incredible instrument of good living because of the countless facilities it provides; on the other hand, it has been used as a escape route from reality. When you run away from reality you can’t get anywhere.”
Sitting on the museum’s staircase, we finished our coffee unhurriedly and without another word. Then we went to the exhibition. An opportunity to come into contact with relics that remind us of a civilization with a singular culture, very different from ours. A way of thinking and seeing, of being and living quite different from what we practice today. It was not only information, but knowledge. The difference between the two is that information only gives us content; knowledge broadens and deepens the way of thinking and seeing, and may become angular as an instrument for the transformation of being and living. This is one of the important aspects for which contact and respect for other societies becomes valuable. It is up to each person to filter, mould and forge the transformation of information into knowledge. Wisdom consists in applying knowledge to untie the knot of existence.
It was almost night when we left the museum. Valentina immediately accepted my invitation for dinner. We walked a few blocks and entered a small restaurant, almost a snack bar, specializing in homemade sandwiches and omelettes. We took the last vacant table. Televisions installed at strategic points broadcast a news program with subtitles and no sound. People were attentive to the report of a sad crime committed that afternoon. Some were chatting, but as their eyes were on the TV screens, it was not difficult to understand that they were talking about the tragedy of the day. Valentina asked: “What content of this information is qualified to become knowledge?” In response, I just shrugged my shoulders like someone who says they don’t know.
A nice young waitress approached us to take our order. Valentina wanted to know her name. Faced with the girl’s surprise, she explained: “Knowing the names of all the people with whom I live helps to soften the impersonality that prevails in most relationships. Everything that is impersonal becomes harsh. How can you serve me dinner without my even knowing your name?” After the initial surprise, the young woman said her name was Beth. The nun asked if the waitress was also studying, as she appeared to be no older than twenty. The girl smiled and a light went on in her eyes. She explained: “I study drama and singing. I work to pay for the courses. I dream of acting in big musicals.” Valentina revealed that Shakespeare was her favourite playwright. Beth told us that the English writer was also her favourite author. They talked about some of his works until the young woman spoke, with a rhetorical question: “I’ve never understood why there isn’t a musical based on The Merchant of Venice. Can you imagine the scope and richness of a show like that?”. Yes, it would be fantastic.
As almost everyone was entertained by the tragedy of the news, we were able to chat for several minutes without any interruption until she was requested by another table. Before leaving, Beth helped with our order by making a few suggestions and then thanked us, “Thank you for taking an interest in me. There are nights when people talk to me like they’re using an app on their mobile phone. They don’t look me in the eye; I don’t think they can.” She frowned and concluded: “Everything that is impersonal generates distance and creates walls”, and gave us a beautiful smile.
Valentina’s gesture of showing interest in the other, without any secondary intention, was of an incredible simplicity. It required only compassion, nothing more. Compassion was the virtue and art used to connect another person’s feelings to her heart. Thus, it not only destroyed a wall, but built a bridge. From one heart to another. The demonstration of the importance of the other to me is the missing link that reveals our essence and allows us to embrace the world. That day, as a privileged observer, I was able to witness two such embraces. In a very simple and soft way, without pomp and fanfare, as love is in its countless ways of loving.
Being just the both of us again, Valentina pointed to the TV and commented: “Television is a precious entertainment and information tool. However, the world of the news is gloomy and discouraging. Although the facts are not untrue, I have the feeling that they filter out the good to serve only the worst in people, as if they were feeding evil. As we talked about earlier, not all information generates knowledge. When segmented, information causes the opposite effect, because it deforms knowledge. It would be like trying to sustain a building on rotten or badly constructed foundations. At some point it will collapse”.
I questioned whether she was referring to existential deformations, those that generate horrible sufferings due to the malformation of thinking. In symbiosis with feeling, it will give rise to devastating passions, distorting the being and curtailing living. The culture of pain and fear grows, feeding the pernicious idea that the world is evil and people are bad. Thus, estrangement, indifference and hopelessness germinate. Valentina nodded. The nun philosophised, “There is an urgent need to strengthen a culture that has inhabited the world for millennia, a way of being and living based on the pillars of love and light, without which no advance will be achieved nor will any healing be attained.”
“Life will always have the scope of the observer’s gaze. Deformed eyes understand reality by twisted and limited aspects. A distorted vision will reign. One of the laws of physics teaches that to see something there must be light; nothing can be seen in the dark. When there is little light, I perceive only the shadows that form on the walls of the existential cells that make me believe they represent reality. The shadow is formed because I oppose, like a barrier, the irradiation of the light. When I am the light source, the shadows appear when my thoughts and feelings create these obstacles. When they are huge, I can’t even see the shadows. Seeing the shadows signals the beginning of the victory of the light.”
“Science also shows us that by changing the angle through which we understand something or someone, we allow a greater or lesser passage to the light; the object observed is modified. So it is with reality. The observer establishes, in the breadth and depth of his or her gaze, the expansion or contraction of the truth”.
At that moment I realised that, despite intense study, I was losing a vital power inherent to all individuals: that of observer. A very important aspect of being, since it changes my whole life. When I give up the power of observer and hand it over to the news, almost always segmented, or even to books, when I accept them as dogmas, I keep my gaze in a drawer and start using eyes for hire. I begin to have a vision that is not born of my consciousness nor is it the fruit of the development of the knowledge that I possess. Then I also enter a virtual universe. Literally. As in the games, I believe I am, I believe I overcome phases, I believe I win, I believe I live. It all begins or ends in accepting or denying the power of the observer in me.
The illusion of a world for people to transit through it and feel the sensations to which they are led is not a novelty of software. Since time immemorial the manipulation of the gaze through the filtering of information and the segmentation of knowledge has generated distorted consciousnesses. A practice that dragged multitudes; people believed they made the best choices. They were like modelling clay at the mercy of minds driven by fear and suffering. History is replete with stories of entire societies that practiced terrible evils believing they were practicing good. The Coliseum, the Inquisition, the Reich, Apartheid, among a thousand other examples, are harmful practices driven by the culture of hate. Only those who are afraid feel hatred.
However, I am only manipulated when I begin to see life with borrowed eyes. The problem is that we almost never perceive the Machiavellian web woven by this sneaky craftsman: fear. It steals reality from us to rob us of choices. In this way we waste our lives. It is necessary to rescue our own eyes and then dissipate the mist formed by the lack of use of this fantastic power. This is a necessary exercise. The clarity of the observer’s gaze is the seed of the expansion of his or her consciousness. The Virtues enable the gardener.
There is no difficulty in perceiving that the universe of games is only entertainment. However, every time we make a decision based on the construction of a knowledge segmented by information selected for some purpose, we dive into a virtual universe. Lies, deceit and illusion are also powerful unreal worlds. By losing the power of observer, I surrender the command of my life to people I do not even know. I distance myself from reality and make choices that I imagine are mine but are not. The autonomy of my gaze brings the independence of my thinking; without this, true freedom will not exist. Without free-thinking there is no way to balance emotions and we end up numbing them. Anesthetizing feelings is the escape route for not dealing with suffering and lack of understanding. Those who run away don’t get to the truth. I cease to be who I am and all that I could be and live.
Otherwise, by intensifying personal relationships, I am able to generate a content without any interference or manipulation. I observe and reflect. Then I understand which of the information will serve to build my knowledge. By understanding the richness that exists in each person, I awaken the best in me and broaden reality. I become my disciple and master. Life is a book without end; however, only my own eyes are capable of deciphering its letters.
When I pawn my eyes, consciousness escapes me and love is extinguished.
We were silent for a few minutes, a necessary time to allocate those ideas. Beth served us the sandwiches. They were delicious and we expressed our satisfaction to the young waitress. That was when she told us that she would be auditioning for a musical that night, after closing up at the restaurant, and invited us to watch. I told her I couldn’t because I was going to pick Denise up at the airport. “I’m missing my girlfriend,” I confessed. Valentina said she would accompany Beth. The girl was excited and said looking at the nun: “That’s good! I am very nervous and your presence calms me down”. She smiled and added: “My shift ends in fifteen minutes. Please take your time. I’m going to change my clothes and meet you outside.” While we were eating, Valentina took out a notebook that she always carried in her purse to write down the inspiration that never announces when it comes. She wrote, scribbled and wrote again and again, as if the words dictated by intuition and creativity ran over each other with the speed with which they came. I saw a blank sheet of paper being scratched in graphite and transformed into art. At the end, she showed me the poem:
From nothing the All is made;
Colours are not in the world;
They only reflect the paints of the gaze.
Darkness persists in every corner
Until the light that exists in the gaze is lit.
The roughness of touch is undone
in the softness of a gaze
The knot of life is undone
in the patience of a gaze
The steel of the sword loses its cut
When before the love of a gaze
Any place is illuminated
in the joy of a gaze
No fantasy can deceive
The simplicity of a gaze
The strictest censorship cannot bear
the sincerity of a gaze
Arrogance is ashamed to bump into
in the humbleness of a gaze
The fire of intolerance does not burn
the purity of a gaze
No doubt survives
the firmness of a gaze
All conflicts cease
in the calmness of a gaze
I am my gaze;
without it there is only spectre and dust”.
Delighted, was the word that defined me and prevented me from saying any words. It had been a day of many learnings. I looked at the clock, it was my time; I didn’t want to be late. I said goodbye. Before leaving, I asked if the poem had a title. Valentina answered immediately: “The observer”.
Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.