The pain that isn’t mine

When I arrived at Loureiro’s workshop in the small, charming town at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery, the shoemaker was closing his doors. Despite the workshop’s unusual opening hours, I was surprised since it was still dawn. He welcomed me with his usual smile and serene cheerfulness. I invited him in for a fresh coffee and a chat. Loureiro said he couldn’t go at that moment. He was going to visit his sister: “She’s very ill,” he explained. I offered to keep him company; he accepted. At the hospital, I realised that her situation was very serious. Although she was lucid and spoke with ease, it wasn’t difficult to understand the difficulties she would have to endure in the coming months, if she had that much time left to live. The diagnosis of the doctor who spoke to us separately was no different. Lorena, the daughter of the shoemaker’s sister, was with us and collapsed in pained tears. Loureiro hugged her, didn’t say a word and asked the doctor a few questions to clear up any doubts he had. I didn’t see any trace of suffering in his eyes, a detail that surprised me because I considered him to be a man of acute sensitivity.

At the end of the conversation, Loureiro said he would return to his sister’s room. Lorena said she needed to calm down and smoke a cigarette. She went outside the hospital. In her room, Loureiro talked a lot with her sister. She asked him to update her on her condition. With enormous tranquillity and affection, the shoemaker told her the blunt truth, without any embellishments or subterfuges, and made it clear what the reality was that awaited her. Very moved, she cried. Then she thanked her brother for his honesty. She said that time will always be a precious commodity with an indefinite shelf life. However, realising the fragility of existence made her look at time differently. There was so much to do. There, they had an interesting philosophical conversation, raising an extremely important question. Why don’t we always prioritise our priorities? Incoherent, isn’t it?

If the essence of life is to become a better person and to love more intensely, why don’t we devote more time to these goals? Why do we devote so much time to the problems of survival, leaving issues of transcendence in the background? Well, because we have bills to pay. Rent, the market, school, medicines and an infinite number of services that are indispensable to everyday life make our days too busy. If that’s the case, why don’t we look for the doors to transcendence during the battle for survival? Yes, not only is it possible, but it’s a marvellous evolutionary tool. When properly utilised, we will be able to find the secrets of transcendence in the filigree of survival. They don’t cancel each other out; on the contrary, they help each other.

As they touched on the subject, they began to recall events from their childhood and adolescence, in which difficulties served to mould their character and teach them about the need to overcome. As they were orphaned in their teens, they learnt from an early age how to find in themselves the strength they needed to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles. These were happy memories, as they realised that they had evolved thanks to the problems they had had to face. His sister remarked that she would now have to learn to deal with this overwhelming illness, without knowing how much time she had. Loureiro pondered: “In truth, nobody knows how much time they really have. More days don’t mean better days. Fools worry about numbers; wise people worry about direction. So, knowing that the show is about to end can become a gift, allowing the artist the final sonnet.”

The cobbler warned her: “However, don’t allow yourself the fallacy of living each day as if it were your last. This will bring you regret for everything that hasn’t been done or wasted, like someone who has taken on too much debt to pay off in the short time that remains. There will be a lot of anxiety waiting for the curtain to suddenly close. Time will be a villain. You will feel bitterness and fear.”

“Live each day as if it were your first, so you know that all the possibilities for creation are within your reach. There will be the lightness, calm and joy typical of those who can glimpse infinite horizons. You’ll feel strengthened as you get closer to your essence, the source of your true strength, the one that awakens when we live the best that dwells within us, a place where fear doesn’t exist. In this way, we stop worrying about pleasing the public and start to delight our own hearts. It’s a time when time no longer matters. Nothing will prevent us from accessing the wonders of life that reside in our consciousness.” Those words lit up his sister’s eyes, and she nodded her head and gave us a beautiful smile. For a brief moment, she realised the immeasurable power she held in her hands.

It was a moment of intense light that changed in the next second. Lorena, who had entered the room and heard the end of the conversation, had swollen, reddened eyes. Unable to hold back her tears, she knelt beside her mother, begging her not to leave her. At the same moment, the smile disappeared from Loureiro’s sister’s face, replaced by a look of suffering. The devices monitoring her began to beep. The nurse entered the room, called the doctor and asked us to leave so that they could carry out some emergency procedures. In the hospital lobby, the shoemaker invited us to a nearby bakery. He confessed that he wanted a cup of coffee accompanied by a sandwich with an egg and the good local cheese. Lorena shook her head in disapproval of her uncle’s attitude and declined the invitation.

The shoemaker told me an amusing story. We saw Lorena outside the bakery. She took one last drag on her cigarette before throwing what was left in the trash bin and going inside. She sat down at the table with us. Her uncle was attentive and wanted to know if she wanted anything to eat or drink. With disdain, the girl said she hadn’t felt hungry or thirsty for days. In an inquisitive tone, she said that when she had arrived, she had seen us smiling. She accused Loureiro of the offence of insensitivity, as well as a false show of affection. She said she found his uncle’s behaviour absurd, as he was able to laugh and have fun while his sister was going through the most difficult time of her life. In an aggressive tone, she asked the shoemaker not to visit her anymore. Loureiro, without changing his voice, with the absolute serenity of those who have dominion over themselves, said: “You base yourself in rights and truths that don’t have a monopoly on”. Lorena said she didn’t know what her uncle was talking about. The cobbler listed the situations he was referring to: “Who can assure you that your mother is going through the most difficult time of her life? How can you be sure that I lack love or understanding when dealing with my sister? Who gave you the power to forbid the way she and I love each other?”. Then, like a magician who makes an elephant disappear on stage, he surprised even me: “Besides, her pain isn’t mine”.

Angrily, Lorena punched the table and said that the provocation was unnecessary. She threatened her uncle if he returned to the hospital. She claimed that those words showed a total lack of compassion. I confess that I agreed. Unperturbed, Loureiro asked: “Listen to my reasons, allow me to show you another view. My way of being and living tells you what truth I know. Neither better nor worse than any other, but they are the lenses and filters I have in life and the world, because they translate certain meanings that I believe I have already decoded. By remaining consistent with them, I feel a little fuller”.

His niece said she would listen, but she couldn’t guarantee that her opinion would change. The cobbler sipped his coffee and began to reason: “It’s not the first time your mother has had a tumour”. Lorena frowned as she learnt an old and new fact. Loureiro continued: “You were born just a few months before and Rubens, your brother, was still learning to walk. Your father had disappeared into the world in search of other adventures. The proximity of death frightened your mother immensely because of the obvious material and emotional dependence of her children at such a young age. I was the first to hear about her illness and I offered to look after you for the duration of her treatment. She told me that the presence of her children by her side was important at such a delicate time, as it would give her the strength to overcome the situation. She only asked me to promise to look after the both of you if she couldn’t see you grow up. I gave her my word and she breathed easy. It was a battle that forged the warrior in her. When she was discharged, she was bigger and stronger. You and Rubens never knew about it because it no longer mattered. The page was turned. True heroes don’t bother to tell their own story.”

“It was unlike today, when the disease returns at a time when you are adults, have financial autonomy, have a well-designed code of ethics and are old enough to acquire the indispensable emotional balance. There’s no doubt about it, it was harder that time.”

The cobbler took another sip of coffee and continued: “Love is a virtue that requires understanding. For that, perception and sensitivity cannot be lacking. The love that always connected your mum and me was a mature feeling, in which there was a lot of solidarity, but no drama or victimisation. Acceptance of everyday difficulties, whatever they may be, is the lesson of the day for those faced with the problem. Of course, we have to welcome and help others. However, adding more suffering doesn’t bring any gains. On the contrary, it hinders rather than help. Suffering removes clarity of thought and despair removes hope.”

Lorena interrupted to ask if seeing her crying might have led to a momentary worsening of her mother’s condition. Loureiro was honest: “I can’t say, but it may have happened. The question is not only how you should behave towards your mother, but the feeling that will permeate your days for as long as the treatment lasts.” The niece argued that it was an expression of the love she felt. The uncle agreed, but pondered: “Without a doubt, the love that exists in you is undeniable. Just as your commitment to offering her the best is valuable. However, when noticing a daughter’s pain, any mother’s suffering will intensify. What is the need for any of this?  No pain is necessary for love to exist. Your suffering won’t diminish hers, so it’s unnecessary. She needs to feel love in the form of hope and faith, not in the form of despair and tears. The way we express our love makes a big difference. This is just one of the reasons why love needs understanding, both when giving and receiving.”

“Understand that I’m not suggesting that you pretend or hide your feelings, but that you restructure them. I don’t like the idea of repressing feelings, but I think they deserve improvement. Every pain is a message from the soul in search of improvement. Believe me, suffering is neither necessary nor inevitable.”

Those words moved the girl. She ordered a coffee. We added two more cups to the order. Lorena then commented that she was amazed at her uncle’s lack of compassion when he said that his sister’s pain wasn’t his. Loureiro argued: “Yes, that’s how I feel. Contrary to what you believe, I said it out of pure compassion”. Before his niece could point out any inconsistencies, he expanded his reasoning: “Compassion is the virtue by which we are able to feel the pain of others. For this, love is essential. However, as it is love, it needs understanding. To feel someone else’s suffering, in other words, to have compassion, requires love. However, feeling someone else’s suffering does not mean absorbing their pain. These are very different movements. Feeling requires perception and sensitivity in order to welcome it to the best of one’s ability and according to the needs of the people involved. Absorbing the pain of others will not diminish the suffering of the one who suffers, it will only expand it through the people who love them in endless progressions. It’s a disservice to love.”

“Mature love offers its hand, welcomes in its arms and heart, but does not suffer. This is because suffering will weaken you and jeopardise your ability to help those you want to help. Allowing yourself to be contaminated by suffering is not necessarily a gesture of love, but of immaturity in the art of loving.”

Lorena wondered if this was the attitude of an insensitive person. Loureiro disagreed: “Insensitivity is quite another thing. It occurs when we turn our backs and disregard the pains of the world. In maturity, love is wise. It knows that in every problem there is a master waiting to teach a lesson. Nothing is for no reason; every effect has a just and educational cause. As long as suffering persists, it means that learning has not been completed. So make the most of it when you can and support other people’s pain wherever possible. However, don’t suffer a pain that isn’t yours. It’s not necessary. In fact, endeavour not to suffer even when it happens to you; pain will only delay the start of the overcoming process. Be grateful for the opportunity for growth that arises with each problem and start thinking of a way to be different and live better with the reality that presents itself. There you have the exact tools to work on the perfect moment. It will always be possible to find a new understanding and the virtues that are indispensable for evolution. Then, unthinking regeneration will occur. Not always of the body, but inevitably of the soul. So don’t suffer even when it’s your problem.”

“Suffering causes fear. Fear shrinks love and coerces reasoning, as well as disconnecting us from our intuitions, a valuable source of strength and good ideas. It’s foolish to believe that those who suffer the most love the most. To be whole, love needs to be free of fear. To do so, it needs to be wise. So don’t suffer. Suffering arises from misunderstanding love”.

“Ancestral conditioning structured around concepts of sin that, although outdated, are still present in our unconscious, make us carry guilt that isn’t ours and doesn’t need to exist. We often feel guilty when we don’t suffer in the face of the pain of someone we love. Am I so insensitive, rude and savage? In silence, we blame ourselves for a supposed lack of sensitivity. Then we seek out suffering in the illusion of dignifying ourselves, when in fact we are punishing ourselves. What’s more, we curtail our ability to help in the best way. At the same time, we prevent ourselves from being happy and at peace. Plenitude is not an impossibility even on difficult days or in the face of delicate moments.”

“That’s why we need to think outside the cage of ideas that imprisons us. All situations that cause discomfort need to be rethought. Otherwise, existence will continue to be heavy and painful. We’re taught about obligations, but nothing about commitment. The difference is vital. Obligations come from outside, through the force of laws and cultural conventions or through the weight of the blame that is placed on us and, worse, accepted. Failing to show grief at a funeral can get us banned from society, to give just one example. The other side of obligation is commitment. It is born within us and is driven by love. It is a free and conscious choice to welcome, care for, provide for or help. This is the difference between the overload and the lightness of life. It also makes relationships more dignified. However, love doesn’t come ready-made; it needs guidance and maturing. Love without obligations or guilt is essential if you want to love better.”

Lorena didn’t say a word. She sipped her coffee while assessing whether it would be possible to put these new ideas into practice. To do so, she would have to give up the metrics she had used until then to judge and punish, demolish the old structures of thinking, admit that the truths that had sustained her until then would have to fall apart to make way for an imponderable way of relating, whether to others or to herself. She would have to take the risk of learning to live under a different perspective, with unknown reactions to a reality that would be completely transformed and, even more risky, there would be no one to tell her how to do it. All of this would be born out of a new meaning for an intimate, albeit unknown, age-old feeling: love.

The girl shook her head to reinforce her own words when she said that the theory was impossible in practice. For Lorena, suffering was an inseparable accessory of love. And also of life. Then she said she had to get back to the hospital. She thanked him for the conversation and left. Loureiro frowned in resignation and looked at me as if he wanted to know what I thought. I was honest with the shoemaker: “I confess that I had never thought of compassion in this way: feeling the other person’s pain doesn’t mean suffering for them. It means welcoming them. Without a doubt, this makes all the difference, not just because of the clarity of the idea, but because of the lightness it will add to the difficulty.”

I paused before concluding: “A revolutionary and liberating way of being and living. Many will not be able to break away from ancestral concepts of domination and guilt, the accusations and condemnations with which they so mistreat each other and distort reality. On the other hand, others will misuse a good argument to justify their own insensitivity. Few are ready to make proper use of this beautiful idea.”

Loureiro asked me how it would be possible to solve the issue. I shrugged and joked: “With two more cups of coffee?”. He smiled and called the waiter over.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

Leave a Comment