We suffer what we lack

The air conditioning in the metro station was broken. In Rio de Janeiro the heat is intense almost all year round, a city where you don’t wear a coat or jacket. On most days, even in the seaside neighbourhoods, where the temperature is soothed by the ocean breeze, short, light clothes are necessary. The carioca’s dispossession in their clothing is not sloppiness, but rather a wise adaptability. We evolve with difficulties or we succumb to them. Biologists learn this lesson on the first day of school. Buddhist monks teach us that with spiritual evolution it is no different. Adaptability to problems does not mean abandoning ethical principles. On the contrary, it perfects them. For the simple fact of valuing the essence of life in detriment of the superfluous of existence. It is an element linked to the construction of personal identity, with regard to virtues, conscience and choices. It also has great importance for connecting with the sacred, which takes the individual to subtler levels of transcendence, allowing a new reading of the difficulties common to survival. Anyway, all this speech to say that this story began with my agony for the defect in the air conditioning in the Cinelândia subway station. Dressed socially for a business meeting, my shirt was soaked with sweat while the train didn’t arrive. Every second of waiting lengthened as I noticed my unease.

While I cursed the terrible service offered by the concessionaire that managed the passenger lines, next to me on the platform, a tall, beautiful woman dressed in the style of some African countries, with multicoloured prints, many strings and a charming turban, was also sweating profusely. The difference was that she did not seem to suffer. She observed everyone, as if everything was a source of enchantment. That intrigued me. When the train arrived, we sat side by side in the same car, which was refrigerated. I recovered from the discomfort caused by the heat, and started talking to her. I asked if she spoke Portuguese, as she seemed foreign to me. Very gentle, the woman told me that we spoke the same language, because she was from Mozambique. Ana was her name. I said that Mia Couto, who was from Mozambique, was one of my favourite writers, and I admired her style and creativity. She agreed and returned the same compliment to Jorge Amado. Afterwards, I confessed that I was amazed she didn’t show any discomfort at the suffocating temperature of the station. Ana shrugged and said: “There were many interesting things to observe there. I could be enchanted by the beauty of the flowers or lost myself in fright of the dangers of the thorns. This is what defines my journey.”

I observed that we should not be content with little. Ana pondered: “It depends on your priorities. Understanding the needs of the body gives value to the needs of the spirit. I can live without delicacies at the table, but I need my dignified conscience as food; I don’t need a car to take me there and back again, but I don’t give up travelling on the wings of freedom; I don’t need to wear designer clothes, but I refuse to take off the elegant cloak of happiness; I can’t avoid conflict and misery in the world, but I can help by keeping my soul in peace; I can live without sex for months, but not a day without love.”

She paused and asked, “Do you still think I am content with little?” Then she concluded: “We suffer what we lack. The essential is enough and it is in me. Whatever is left is just flowers and thorns that make up the landscape.”

She looked me in the eye and asked, “What are you lacking?”  I had never asked myself this question before. As a reflex, without much conviction, I answered that I lacked nothing. She said: “So, there is no suffering. However, it is essential to know if you are being sincere with yourself, something impossible to happen when we still know so little about ourselves. Both the wrong questions and wrong answers lead us to believe that on the other side of the world we will find what we lack, that we will be protected and finally be able to embrace ourselves. Wrong questions and wrong answers deepen the pain by the illusion they cause. We become like mariners abandoned on the quay. Melancholic, we live waiting for a ship that comes to rescue us. In other cases, we are like disorientated captains who cannot find a port to dock in. Anxiously, we have the sensation that we are sailing to nowhere.”

I said that that speech took away all hope. Ana disagreed: “On the contrary, this understanding gives back the power inherent to any person, which was once taken away from us. In truth, you don’t need a boat to cross the ocean.” She paused before disconcerting me: “The reason is simple: the ocean does not exist.”

What did she mean? That did not make sense. The difficulties are real and tangible. The woman smiled. There was compassion in her smile, as if I had a natural difficulty understanding her words. She explained: “We waste entire existences believing that we need to set sail with the ships in the harbour, that the wild seas of the world are the great adventure and when we reach the other side of the ocean, we will find the treasure of life. This is the greatest illusion. We spend our days building boats or hoarding money to buy a passage. Then we want bigger boats to take everything we have. We demand that they also be safe, for we are afraid of the shipwreck of death and the storms of poverty. When we put out to sea we have the feeling that that journey seems meaningless. We supress this thought because we have always heard that it is necessary to reach the other shore, where the best things in life are. We look around, we read the magazines, we watch the news. Almost everyone is crossing the ocean. So we insist.”

“Yet, as we sail, the destination seems to grow distant. We travel for a day that never comes. No port is good enough to dock. We meet many sailors and pirates during the crossing. They assure us that further ahead there is a place where we will find the honey of life. We just need to have a faster ship and get a more trained crew. As we always lack a little more, the suffering does not come to an end.”

“We persist in searching the world for the place that only exists within each one of us. We circumnavigate the seas, we buy bigger ships, we change the crew, we acquire the most modern navigational instruments, we are guided by the latest technological information and, despite the enormous effort, we will return to the starting point.” She shrugged, smiled and finished, “Wrong voyage, mate”.

“We suffer what we lack”.

The train stopped at Cardeal Arcoverde station, in Copacabana. Many passengers got off, others got on. We were sitting on one of those side seats that fit three people. On the side opposite to mine, with Ana in the middle, sat a little man who had accompanied us from the beginning. He took advantage of the moment and politely apologized for listening to our conversation. Then he said that he was suffering a lot because his family did not give him the understanding he deserved. He considered them ungrateful for not reciprocating all the affection he had dedicated to his children when they were younger. He added that Ana was right, he suffered for what he lacked. However, although he had already talked and complained, he did not get the retribution that was due. He had the feeling that his days would come to an end without being able to get along with his family. This was the reason for his enormous pain. Ana pondered: “Love is not a promissory note that later we can demand back the amount borrowed. Love cannot be lent or negotiated. It is necessary to understand that when I love, I do it for myself and not for the other. I love because it feels good to love. It has to be this way so that no debt remains. I love because it is wonderful to express and share my best feelings. Life becomes lighter and more pleasant; only love has the paints to colour my days. I love for myself, I love the meaning that love gives to life. We cannot live like someone who puts love in a savings account to be withdrawn when we need it. The other person will not always have it available to give it back. Nor will they be obliged to do so. If he or she does, it will be great for everyone and even more so for him or herself. People love according to their capacities, not according to our emotional needs and dependencies.” She looked at the little gentleman sweetly and said, “Wrong voyage, mate”.

The man disagreed. In a gentle way, he argued that he had worked hard to offer his children conditions that he had never had. He said that he had had a difficult life. He had faced harsh situations so that his family could enjoy all possible comforts. However, his children did not show any gratitude for the effort he had put in. He felt distant from them”.

The Mozambican explained: “The ocean that stands between you and your family is not the supposed ingratitude of your children, but your own incomprehension of the power that inhabits you. This causes wild emotions to blur the best view. There is a lack of understanding more about love and how this wonderful virtue manifests itself. Love is complete in itself; love is enough for knowing that it is the destination of all journeys.”

She paused for a moment and continued: “Like the vast majority, perhaps your children are in the typical rush of young people preparing to put out to sea. They are worried about taking care of the boat and everything they believe they need for the great crossing of existence. They live with the feeling that there is no time left for anything else and that only the ocean matters. Everyone goes through this. However, remember that sooner or later the journey will bring them back to the starting point. They will discover that the ocean does not exist. On that day, you will be at the pier, with your best smile and hug, to welcome them into your heart.”

Moved, the little gentleman said no words. His watery eyes showed his gratitude. Ana concluded: “We suffer what we lack. However, we lack nothing if we make the right journey.”

The little man got off at the Antero de Quental station, in Leblon. Ana and I went on the train. She looked at me and asked again: “What do you lack?” This time I kept quiet because I didn’t know the answer. Ana was sweet with me: “What do I lack? This is the primordial question, the one that begins to show us who we are. Answer sincerely so that you can have an honest relationship with yourself and with life. Then, another question: Is what I lack in the world or in myself? It is often the one that is most misleading.

I usually hear the right answer, the one that tells me that love, happiness, peace, freedom and dignity are enough. However, the suffering continues because in order to live love I believe that someone needs to accompany me on the journey. I need to travel in the comfort of a big ship so that everyone respects me, because there is no dignity in crossings made in small canoes. The freedom that was impossible for me until my boat set sail from the quay is now dependent on the winds and ocean currents. I cannot feel at peace because of the inherent storms, typical of all crossings. On the high seas, I long for the happiness that exists on a distant paradisiacal island, always beyond the horizon”. Then she clarified: “In this way, the second answer makes the first one get lost.”

“Understanding what we lack is the exact diagnosis for all suffering. Knowing where to look for what we lack is the medicine that brings healing. Where is what I lack? This is the correct question which complements the initial questioning. To understand the journey is to perceive the greatness and beauty that exist on the quay. Then there will be love to welcome the castaways, dignity in offering what I would like to receive, the happiness of being a little better person each morning, the peace of finding myself and the freedom achieved by making the perfect journey”.

The train stopped at the Jardim Oceânico station in Barra. It was the end of the line, where all passengers have to get out of the cars. On the platform, the heat returned, but it didn’t bother me as before. I asked to exchange our phone numbers. I wanted to continue that conversation. I went to the meeting and, at night, at home, the two questions proposed by Ana wouldn’t leave my mind. What do I lack? Where is what I need?

I called her. The telephone operator informed me that the number was non-existent. It was then that I realized the last lesson taught by Ana. She had done her part. From then on it was up to me. Proper understanding would put the power of life in my hands.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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