The tumble (The art of tying your shoes)

I love talking about lots of things, but I’ve always found politics an unpleasant subject. I respect those who like it. Just as Plato wrote that people who don’t like politics would be ruled by those who do, I find in Epictetus the teaching that nothing outside of me can determine the joy of being who I am. We live in the world and we can’t turn our backs on it. However, I think there are a thousand ways to make it a more pleasant place, all of them valid. In my own way, as I become a better person, I create a flowery and fragrant ambience around me. I don’t depend on anything or anyone for this. I don’t need government measures to flourish the garden of my heart. Whether it’s the lenses through which I appreciate life, or the filters that prevent me from being contaminated by any unhealthiness, both are refined according to the exact measure of my perception and sensitivity. That’s all.

The same happens when the questions refer to Philosophy and Metaphysics, subjects that are widely studied in the Order. Religion becomes a fundamental subject, always on the agenda of conversations, because it is, in its simplest and most profound form, a powerful path to evolution, without the subterfuge and undue interference promoted by petty interests and unnecessary exacerbations. At the monastery, all religious currents are welcome, without any discrimination. Of course, we are interested in the original philosophical aspects, not the misrepresentations promoted by their unfair applications, which generate fear, guilt and manipulation. Outside of a libertarian context in which love is the guiding principle, I find conversations on the subject unpleasant. Any religion exists to liberate; if it causes imprisonment, it signals the presence of inappropriate deviations. It’s the same with the study of philosophy and metaphysics, which enchant me so much; if they don’t serve as a tool to help me reach fulfilment, they are of no interest.

If your eyes are healthy is pure, the whole universe is light, teaches the master in the Sermon on the Mount. All darkness germinates in the misunderstanding of the observer.

In those days at the monastery, the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the Order, had travelled and left me in charge of his duties. Everything flowed marvellously well in the studies and debates. There was an atmosphere of joy and camaraderie among the monks. I was sure that the Elder would be pleased when he returned, which was due to happen at any moment. That’s when I received a visit from a middle-aged man with grey hair, dressed in an elegant and formal manner, with a cultured and articulate speech. He said he was a candidate for the municipal elections. He said he had interesting projects to develop in the small, charming town at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery. I thanked him, but declined the offer because I thought it was inappropriate. He was very polite and insisted that his ideas, if put into practice, would affect not only the town, but also the routine at the monastery. Since he didn’t want to get in our way, he wanted to discuss matters that would be of interest to us. I thought it would be good to at least listen. However, I asked him to speak to all the monks and gathered them together after dinner in the lecture hall.

After the first few minutes, the man began to show a rather inflexible bias in his ideas. Some of the monks, believing that there would be a frank and cordial debate, tried to show other angles from which they viewed the issues raised by the candidate. They were all rebuffed aggressively. Cornered, they chose to remain silent. Deeply irritated by the man’s intolerant stance, I began to make sarcastic interventions as he explained his ideas. I believed that this would protect the monks who had been coerced and teach the politician a lesson. It seemed to work. The sarcasm caused everyone in the hall to start laughing at the speaker. The sarcasm reversed the situation, made the man feel ridiculed and ended his speech prematurely. Some were still laughing when he left. I felt like a hero. I thought everyone in the hall had been pleased with my intervention in defence of the monks and free thought. I was wrong.

Two people, standing at the back of the hall, were looking seriously in my direction. The Elder, who had just arrived, and Loureiro, the wine- and book-loving shoemaker, a long-time mutual friend, who had come along to spend a few days with us and give some talks at the monastery. They didn’t say anything, but I realised that they hadn’t liked what they had seen. I went to meet them. After greeting them, the Elder said we were all tired and asked me to meet him in his office at dawn.

I slept badly. I had intermittent nightmares. This always happens when one part of me doesn’t like what the other has done. When I entered the canteen, the monastery was still asleep. Almost all of it. Loureiro and the Elder were chatting lively over a pot of fresh coffee. When they saw me, they signalled for me to sit down with them. The monk started the conversation: “What did you think of yesterday’s lecture?”. I said that it had been rather unpleasant, the politician had shown a rather intransigent side of his personality, allowing no room for disagreement or differences. This, in my opinion, was harmful because of the illegitimately imposed limits. Single-mindedness is a narrow prison. I added that freethinking needs a stage where ideas from all sides can be exposed for calm and clear analyses. Loureiro interjected: “Serenity and clarity require light in order to be established, don’t they?”. I agreed. I emphasised the politician’s uncompromising stance, in which he didn’t allow any disagreement with his discourse and truths. It was the Elder’s turn: “Have you enlightened the debate?”. I said that I had shown the incoherence of his ideas. The monk continued: “Did you present your truths or did you belittle the politician’s way of thinking and acting?”. Before I could answer, he added: “Did you show a different way of thinking, with serenity and clarity, or did you prioritise belittling the one who bothered you?”.

Deep down, I knew where I had gone wrong, but at that moment I tried hard not to admit it. I argued that the politician’s stance was coercive, he was condemning all those who didn’t agree with his ideas beforehand. And he waved them away. The Elder asked: “So, would using slurs, using shadows to fight shadows, spreading the domains of darkness, be doing something different and better? Is it offering the other face, the face of light?”.

I remembered that he had been aggressive towards the monks who disagreed with him. It was Loureiro who reminded me: “The aggressiveness of an individual, although it causes momentary discomfort, will affect the one who exercises it in a more harmful way. They will take their own violence with them, in the form of intolerance, incomprehension, dissatisfaction and suffering. You must have compassion for them rather than anger. Yes, every impatient and violent person carries an immense pain in their soul, so great that they can’t understand the real reason for acting like this. In their simplistic understanding, in their haste to flee from the mirror so as not to confront their own image, they shrink away from the truth. A person becomes intolerant by reducing reality until it fits comfortably in their consciousness, to a size they can understand and use. Then he directs it to the world in search of approval. When he doesn’t get it, he closes himself off in aggressive incomprehension”. He paused for a moment to continue: “He’ll do the same in his personal relationships. He’ll reduce people in a vain attempt to understand them; he’ll cut down the truth to fit the model he considers appropriate. By denying the differences that broaden and deepen reality, the world will have few colours, his thoughts will be limited, even if he has a cultured and articulate language.”

He looked me in the eye and asked again: “How was the lecture yesterday?”. I didn’t have to say a word. Just like them, I knew the answer. In the face of such darkness, instead of patience and compassion, there was the choice to ridicule the other person so that they would be the subject of mockery and derision. I could have countered the politician’s ideas with my own, in a calm and clear exposition. By irritating myself, I exceeded myself through sarcasm. Any excess is typical of the shadows; I used unnecessary aggression. Excesses show a lack of balance and confidence. I lowered my head. I knew they were right. Not only had I wasted the opportunity to illuminate the darkness, even worse, I had let my light go out.

Sarcasm is a cruel form of aggression that exposes a person in a vexatious way. It’s a socially accepted form of violence that, even worse, usually brings applause to the mocker’s intelligence. However, intelligence and virtue don’t always go hand in hand. Sarcasm will always be a good example of this misuse, for all the pride and vanity involved. I knew this too.

It was the monastery’s psychosphere that had been torn apart by my participation in the aggression with which I fought aggression. My vibration had also become dense and dark. The bad night’s sleep hadn’t been for nothing. By getting angry, I had opened the door for evil to enter and, worse, take command of my attitudes. When I lose control of my behaviour, I move away from the light. Who takes over? The shadows of the world invade me and resurrect my personal shadows. Everything I had achieved, I hand over to those I don’t owe a thing. When I lose power over myself, nothing good can come of it. None of this was unknown to me. Even so, I had fallen. Nobody beats anybody. Everyone will always be their own greatest and only opponent.

The cobbler took a sip of coffee and said: “Life is not a game”.

He paused for me to assimilate the concept and clarified: “In a game there is the assumption of a contest, in which one individual or group will come out the winner, while on the other side there will be the loser. It’s an idea with many traces of the ancestral primitivism that still permeates us. That’s why we still love sporting competitions so much. Behind the ideal of health, vigour and entertainment, there is the unconscious and savage motivation to subjugate the other, who at that moment occupies the position of adversary. When, in fact, they represent the enemy from the battles of yesteryear. All competitions are simulated war games, an attempt to fulfil an addiction that has not yet been understood and therefore not overcome.”

He emptied his mug and poured himself some more coffee. Then he added: “It happens that when I try to defeat someone else, I lose myself, because I move away from my core of light, the source of my strength and balance. There is no victory in beating the other person, there is only an immature duel for an illusory gain that is far removed from true power.”

He sipped his coffee and clarified: “Life is a school”.

Then he continued: “Victory lies in learning from each situation and then evolving. This means a greater affinity with virtues and the consequent illumination of shadows. It all comes down to the internal struggle with oneself. Victory only exists when I overcome my difficulties and fears. This isn’t a game; it’s the meaning of life. To evolve is to switch on the light to dispel the darkness that still haunts my heart”.

He paused and added: “When we dedicate ourselves to duelling with someone, it means we’ve lost the battle against the shadows, because we’ve been deceived about the real battlefield. We fought the wrong fight. Every time we set out to defeat someone else, it means that pride and vanity have taken the helm of my ship, altering course towards dark and haunted harbours. This can happen even when I’ve been sailing towards the light for a long time.”

The Elder concluded: “Many make mistakes out of ignorance. Because they don’t have access to brighter concepts, they let themselves be fooled by the promises of darkness. However, many others, already in possession of knowledge, sometimes make mistakes due to a lack of vigilance; that watchful eye that everyone should keep on themselves. They know advanced ideas and concepts, they are aligned with virtuous principles and values, but they allow themselves to be irritated by the behaviour of others. It only takes this small oversight for the door to their sacred space to become vulnerable to the invasion of the shadows. Then the mistake will come. The temple will be vilified. In a second, everything you have achieved will be destroyed”.

Loureiro crouched down and untied my shoes. Then he tied the laces of one shoe to those of the other foot. He asked me to walk. I told him I couldn’t because I would fall. The cobbler explained: “That’s what happens when we get into any dispute to defeat someone. You tie your life to someone else’s. Freedom ends. Freedom ends; nobody walks.” He squatted down again, tied each shoelace to his own shoe and explained: “The shoes are the people; the shoelaces correspond to their choices. Shoes go side by side, but each one adapts and limits itself to its own lace and step. You don’t use the laces on one shoe to tie another shoe, otherwise you will be stuck. If you try, you’ll fall over.”

I was sad. It had been a perfectly avoidable mistake. The same intolerance that I had repudiated in the politician I had allowed to manifest itself in me. I had also been intolerant with him. This realisation would be the cornerstone of my reconstruction. It was a commitment I was making to myself at that moment. I told them this. I was being sincere. I also said that I would go to the politician to apologise for my behaviour, and that I would make amends to the monks so that last night could be put to better use.

The Elder arched his lips in a slight smile and ended the conversation: “Throw away your sadness. There are many reasons to rejoice, whether it’s learning or the opportunity to start again.” He then ended with one of the lessons left by the master: “Now that you’ve understood how to tie your shoes the right way, rise and walk!”.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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