The wrong mountain

“Depression comes when we stop believing in our own abilities,” the Elder, as we affectionately called the oldest monk in the monastery, once told me. I’ve always carried this valuable teaching with me, as if it were a kind of life jacket, to wear every time a storm gave me the feeling that it would be impossible to continue travelling towards the sacred lands of the plenitudes. “We all have the right to happiness, love, dignity, peace and freedom. However, these marvellous things don’t come by magic or as a gift. They are achievements that come from the intrinsic constructions of the being to be enjoyed in life.”

“Like any conquest, it requires struggle. This is why Paul, the apostle, coined the term The Good Fight in one of his famous letters. This battle is about discovering oneself, one’s strengths, gifts and abilities in order to illuminate one’s own shadows and overcome difficulties. The essentials of life are not denied to anyone. Accept your difficulties with gratitude, they are your access codes to the Plenitudes. They are very personal, in other words, everyone has their own codes, and they are not the same for anyone. So never compare your life with anyone else’s. Only fools insist on this.”

I remembered this lesson again when I met Ivan, a university classmate. He had always been a very cheerful person. We’d had a lot of fun during the course. As well as being very studious, Ivan had healing hands, a term I used to define his gift, a personal talent that we all have, but which manifests itself in different ways. As an undergraduate, doing internships in hospitals, I often saw him solving seemingly complicated situations with incredible ease, surprising even his supervisors, who were all experienced doctors. When I asked him how he had done it, he would reply that he had done the obvious in a simple way. When I asked him where he had learnt to do it, Ivan shrugged and said that it seemed like he had always known, although he had never thought about it or been in that situation before. Little by little, the indispensable technique he had learnt from his many studies, to which he dedicated himself with all his might, had honed his gift and broadened his ability to heal.

Ivan didn’t have the physique of a film star. On the contrary, he was clumsy, hardly ever combed his hair, unshaven and didn’t pay much attention to the clothes he wore. However, he had a beautiful smile, a constant good humour and a contagious cheerfulness, characteristics that made him a well-known ladies’ man at university. He was a happy man, at peace with himself. People like that have the power to make others around them want to get close and at ease.

He specialised in Gynaecology and Obstetrics and soon became very well known. At his office it was common to wait for weeks to get an appointment. It was a time when we drifted apart, as is common, given the many commitments and tasks that arise in everyone’s daily lives, although the feeling of being friends remained. The years passed and I learnt that the office had become a clinic and, sometime later, a maternity hospital. Ivan’s talent had made him a very wealthy man, thanks to his great and fair work. Some photos of him, now a doctor of well-deserved fame, showed him with a neat haircut, always clean-shaven and dressed in elegant clothes. “He’s become a handsome man,” I laughed to myself, and when I met him, I would joke with him like that. We didn’t see each other for many years. Many things changed in our day with the sacred intention of transforming us.

I had left the studio of an excellent graphic designer who sometimes did the covers for the books of the publishing house. I was always interested in following all the details of the creation of the books and I really enjoyed working with this artist, because as well as admiring his talent, he was a man who also loved what he did. It was his gift and, as such, an instrument of his dreams. He was fun to be with, a cheerful and good-humoured person, despite the financial difficulties he often faced when requests for work dwindled. As it was lunchtime and his workshop was in a modest flat at the end of one of those streets forgotten from the rest of the city, typical of Humaitá in Rio de Janeiro, I decided to walk to Botafogo, a neighbouring district famous for its good restaurants.

Even after so many years, I had no trouble recognising Ivan, sitting alone at a table. His photos were common. The reverse didn’t apply. He was slow to recognise me and the reasons were fair. My long black hair was completely gone and I had an almost white beard, plus the rings I had started wearing in my ears, made it difficult to identify me. “You look like a different man, I thought you were an old gypsy!” he exclaimed sympathetically before continuing: “Only the easy laugh still remains as a kind of trademark.” We exchanged a tight and sincere hug.

Sitting at the table, we caught up on our lives. The bottle of wine, which was already half empty when I arrived, was soon replaced by another, which was rapidly emptying. I was still on the first glass. He was astonished to hear about the many changes of direction, both professional and existential, that had taken place in my life. “It wasn’t a straight road,” he commented. I agreed with him: “No, it certainly wasn’t. It took many mistakes for me to realise who I was and who I wanted to become. I thank each of them for the truths they revealed and the transformations they allowed.”

I asked him about his career, because although I hadn’t said anything about it, I had noticed an undeniable sadness in his eyes. Ivan frowned and said: “My road went straight ahead. The curves that emerged were to turn the consulting room into a clinic; a few years later, it became a well-known maternity hospital. Today, I don’t see patients or deliver babies. The hospital administration demands too much of me. All in all, modesty aside, I think it’s been a success story. There was no significant turning point. From an early age, I achieved prestige in my career and financial peace of mind. I have no reason to complain.”

We toasted the beauty of life. We chatted about pleasantries and, when the second bottle had been emptied, almost solely on Ivan’s account, in the name of the old friendship that had been maintained despite the time we had been apart, I said: “Although there are no apparent reasons, I have the feeling that I see sadness in your eyes. Does what I see make any sense?”.

Ivan nodded his head in the affirmative, without saying a word. I asked him why he felt that way. He shrugged and mumbled, “I don’t know”. A tear escaped down his cheek.

He then lamented: “I think I’ve been caught by this silent epidemic called depression. I have a beautiful family, prestige from my colleagues and most of the things money can buy. However, I can’t find any reason to be happy.” Without saying anything, we both knew why he had consumed almost two bottles of wine by himself at lunch. Alcohol is a quick-acting but short-lived anxiolytic with harmful consequences. It is perhaps the most widely used medication against depression, especially in its early stages, without people realising why they like it so much. It is often used to cover up existential abysses with the illusory cloak of brief euphoria. Groups of friends get together under various pretexts, carrying the subliminal desire to have a justifiable reason to hide from life, as if they were tribes celebrating a dark goddess who threatens to throw them over the cliff the next day. No, it’s not about demonizing alcohol; it will always be childish to act without forethought. One-way thinking leads to barbarism. The refinement of ideas demands that any fact be considered from multiple angles. Alcohol is a tool, like everything else in the world. Proper use doesn’t cause any problems, misuse leads to abuse. Abuse and inertia are murky fountains that irrigate decadence. What is the emptiness that I insist on filling with alcohol? A vital question, without which nothing will be filled. It’s the question that won’t go away, but few have the courage to face. Of course, Ivan knew this, but for some reason he was running away from himself.  

“I got to the top and there wasn’t what I thought I’d find,” Ivan remarked sincerely. I reasoned with him: “You have to understand which mountain you’re climbing to know if what you’re looking for is at the top. You must pay close attention, so you don’t climb the wrong mountain”. Ivan looked at me as if my words made sense to him.

We talked a lot. I remembered his undeniable talent for healing. How he had been a distinguished academic with an above-average level of resourcefulness. We recalled many cases and facts, and I even managed to make Ivan laugh out loud. For a few moments, I could see shades of light in that young dreamer who had dedicated himself to using his gift as an instrument for good living. Happiness is the manifestation of fulfilment through the enchantment of life. I reminded him how cheerful and good-humoured he always was and how these factors made life appear like an infinite illuminated road. Back then, today was lived with intensity and without any concern for tomorrow. Because there was the certainty that it would be even better. Peace is the feeling of plenitude that comes when overcoming fear.

At one point, I asked him: “At what point did Ivan lose himself?”. He, an intelligent and sensitive man, replied with incredible clarity: “The day I forgot who I really am.”

He then concluded his reasoning: “Then I started climbing the wrong mountain”. I reminded him of the need to think in multiple ways: “There is no wrong mountain if we reason that we have somehow learnt from our mistakes. However, there is a right mountain. The one your heart is happy to climb, and your soul is waiting for you at the top.”

“Most people, at least those with a minimum degree of awareness, if asked what they want in life, will answer the same things: love, peace, happiness, freedom and dignity. However, we get lost as to how we will achieve these plenitudes. Often, we climb the wrong mountain. Then, of course, when we get to the top, we’ll find many things, but the essence of our search won’t be there. Many still don’t understand the reason for the emptiness – after all, they’ve reached the top!” I took a sip of the wine and concluded: “They don’t know anything about the wrong mountain.”

“When you climb the right mountain, even if it rains, the days will be sunny; however steep it may seem to the unwary, the walk will be light. There will be no risk to stop you from going on, no fear to halt your progress; the only danger is of being betrayed by yourself.”

Ivan looked at me for a few seconds and admitted: “That’s what happened. In the carelessness of one day, I lost who I am.” He paused briefly and added: “Or rather, who I was.” I reminded him again: “We can move away, disown or abandon the essence of who we are, but it never dies. It will wait for you until the day of reconciliation, when you will recover the truth that guides your path. It is the greatest expression of dignity in personal dealings. Dignity is the awareness of plenitudes in being and freedom is its total expression in living.”

He shook his head as if to say he had no way out and said in a resigned tone: “I lost my way. I took the wrong road. I’m too old to go back. All I can do is enjoy the good things that still exist in the world.” I disagreed with him: “If you’re far from yourself, you’re far from the wonders of life. Without one, there won’t be other’’.

I remembered a Norse mantra that I learnt while crossing the desert and quoted it: “Where there is a will, there is a way”. We didn’t say a word for a long time. Ivan’s eyes roamed the universe, searching for something that only he knew what it was. Until he broke the silence: “I’ve given birth many times, but I have no idea how to be reborn.” I smiled and suggested: “I have an idea. Would you like to try?”. It was his turn to smile and reply with wisdom: “Making a mistake is a thousand times better than not taking a risk”. Then he wanted to know how we were going to do it. Without going into details, I asked him to give me the opportunity to show it to for a day. Just one day would do. It seemed like a simple idea to me, but it had to mean something to his heart, or it wouldn’t be worth anything. If it awakened his soul, the portal to a new reality would open. Ivan smiled again, shrugged, and said: “The best ideas are characterised by their simplicity”. I arranged to meet at seven o’clock the next morning.

The many slums in Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps throughout the country, are marked by the absolute absence of the state and therefore of basic security, education and health services. As the publishing house was working in one of them, teaching storytelling techniques to encourage the formation of new writers, I had access to the border areas of the community, where walking around can become dangerous if done without prior authorisation. Next to the building where the classes were held, there was a poorly attended Basic Health Unit. Yes, that was the absurdly simple idea; to get Ivan to return to his origins, to recover his gift and his dreams. Therein lies the essence of us all.

As if he had guessed my thoughts, when I parked in front of his house, Ivan was already waiting for me at the door. He seemed excited. The most interesting thing was that he wasn’t wearing the fancy clothes of the day before. Although he was wearing a dress shirt, he was in jeans and trainers; his hair was dishevelled, and he was unshaven. He had a white coat in his hands and a stethoscope hanging around his neck. Although he was a few decades older, I could see there the friend I had known from college times. His cheerful laugh as he got into the car signalled that it was no accident. The rest was like the perfect performance of an advertised opera. We were warmly welcomed at the health centre. The queue of patients waiting to be seen was huge; the man in charge showed us a room for him to practise in, where there was only a small table and a stretcher. It was very different from the modern, well-equipped maternity hospital of which he was the owner. Ivan didn’t see the difficulty as a hindrance, but as a challenge, and that will always be the difference. The day went by, and I saw my friend’s enormous willingness to face all kinds of problems. The greater the difficulty, the stronger Ivan’s desire to apply medicine and promote healing. At one point, a young woman came in in great pain. The labour process had begun and there was no time to take her to a hospital, where she would be better cared for. Ivan asked for some clean towels and a basin of hot water. He and I were thrilled when we saw the little baby in his hands. Life enchants us with its magic when we are in tune with it. “It was a success,” I celebrated with Ivan as we left the place. His smile was as wide as that of a child playing in the sun after the rain.

As evening was approaching, I invited him to dinner, and he accepted. We returned to the same restaurant in Botafogo. I suggested a wine and, without realising it, he said he wasn’t in the mood. I fixed my eyes on his. He laughed and shook his head as if to say that he understood that everything was beginning to change. Ivan thanked me. I was sincere: “I’ve actually done very little. If you pay attention, you’ll realise that there was no resistance on your part to carrying out the experiment. Your soul had been inviting you to this dance for a long time. You were already ready to recover your essence. I merely indicated a possibility. We talked a lot and, in the end, I told him that it was now up to him to go ahead if he wanted to. Or return to where I had met him the previous afternoon. However, that day had opened a portal to a new reality, a path for him to find the best that had been lost of himself. Choice and destiny, as is always the case, were in his hands. In response, Ivan simply gave me a serene, happy look.

A few months passed until I received a phone call from Ivan. It was his birthday and he’d asked me to his house for dinner. To my surprise, when I arrived, apart from his wife and children, I was the only guest. He explained: “I’ve always thrown big parties. I invited famous people and authorities, with whom I never had any affinity. But I needed to feel important. The reason was that I no longer felt valuable to myself. When we disconnect from our own essence, we break the link we should maintain with life. Enjoying the pleasures of the world is different from enjoying life. It’s essential to understand the meaning of each thing.” He winked and pretended to tell me a secret: “Otherwise we’ll climb the wrong mountain. When we do, we’ll find lots of good things, but not the good we’re looking for.”

Over dinner, Ivan explained that in the morning he had signed a document granting the management of the maternity hospital to his eldest daughter, who was already helping him manage the maternity hospital. He had hired professional managers to help her with the task. He was sure that the hospital would be in good hands. As for him, he would go back to practising and delivering babies. From now on, he would work as one of the doctors in the maternity ward, without any concern for administrative or financial matters. He looked at me seriously and revealed: “I will continue to attend that basic health unit twice a week”. He paused for a dramatic moment and, although poetic, said with sincerity: “For me, medicine is not just a job, but also a priesthood and an art. Priesthood because there is the intense participation of my soul, the sacred that inhabits me, in every act of my work; art because it serves as an instrument to continue advancing beyond the boundaries of reality by making me understand new and different truths”. Being a doctor was part of his essence; this exercise kept him connected to life, in constant symbiosis. Only in this way could he return to his axis of light and expand and deepen his abilities once again. Infinitely.

I was reminded of a passage from the Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus says: “If two live in harmony in the same house, they will say to a mountain, ‘Get out of here! – and it will leave”. The two referred to in the aphorism are the Universe and your soul; if they are aligned in the same house, that means. within you, everything will be Light.

This ability to move the Whole through the Part means Faith at its highest level. It is a power capable of moving mountains. The joy that Ivan transmitted was unspeakable and infected everyone in his house. The magic of life was back. I remembered that this was how I had met him in college.

It was a marvellous evening. Ivan’s wife and children were very pleasant and interesting people. We talked a lot. It was very late when I said goodbye. On the journey home, I thought about what had happened. There was no denying Ivan’s admirable willingness to give up the top of the mountain he was to climb his own mountain again. Love is the essence of plenitude applied to living. I remembered the words of the Elder: “There are those who do not yet know who they are or who they want to become. There are those who, despite knowing, for some reason refuse to go and meet their essence. Once away from their essence, they lose touch with life. By distancing themselves from themselves, they weaken. Then sadness approaches.”

I remembered that he ended the conversation by asking me a riddle: “The wrong mountain is relative, because it is linked to the learning of those who climb it. However, the right mountain becomes absolute when you understand its true meaning.”

In the middle of the night, standing at a traffic light for a split second, I had the sensation of seeing the Elder crossing the road. His steps were slow but sure.

Translated by: Cazmilian Zórdic

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