In the morning, it was usual to find the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order, in the inner courtyard garden of the monastery, tending the flowers. Roses were his favorite, he devoted hours on end to care for them. Whenever possible, I enjoyed accompanying him and did it whenever possible, not because I liked gardening, but because of the conversations we had. On that day, a young lady came looking for him. She said she was disillusioned with life. All seemed dull, the days were gray, people lacked charm. She even confessed happiness bothered her because it seemed silly. The days were a succession of mistakes and frustrations. There was no reason to smile. At the end of her regrets she asked the Old Man if he was happy. The monk, who had been listening to all she said while tending the garden, showed, on the palm of his hand, a small caterpillar he had taken from the flowers; he put in in the pocket of his tunic to let it loose in the woods later on and said: “There will always be reasons to smile; joy is a seed capable of sprouting even in the desert. It is a choice of wisdom and love.”
The young lady interrupted him saying that it was all too poetic but not really practical. It doesn’t make sense that happiness is a choice, and even less that it connected to wisdom and love. The Old Man explained: “Suffering is a choice. Happiness is the alternative.” The young woman became annoyed. She accused he monk of being insensitive about the problems of others, some of which are quite serious. The Old Man, without losing his composure, continued: “The problem is not the actual problem. The problem lies in the way each one choses to face the unavoidable adversities of life. If you see the problem as an unsurmountable barrier, you will become frustrated. Hence, you have a problem. However, if you understand that the situation provides an opportunity for learning and outdoing yourself, you have a master before you. At each curve we can stagnate or evolve. This is an individual decision; each one journeys with their own conditions and are heir of their choices.”
The young lady disagreed once again. She stated that the source of suffering was external, and not related to the will of people, and that that could not be helped. The monk, very softly, tried to explain: “I don’t think so. What determines happiness or sadness is the way one looks at things.” He made a brief pause and started to speak as if thinking out loud: “Money? I have seen happy people living in slums and depressed people living in mansions by the sea. Health? I had a friend who had been admitted to a hospital with a serious cancer condition. When I went to visit him, I had never seen him so happy. He told me the disease had been the best thing that had happened to him because it gave him a new meaning about values and interests. He was thankful for that cornerstone moment of his life. On the other hand, the nurse in charge of that floor was in a foul mood and regretted her luck because she had sprained her ankle”.
The young lady disclosed she had been fired from her job and, if that wasn’t enough, her boyfriend had dumped her just like that, because he became infatuated with another woman. The monk tried hard to show a broad range of possibilities: “These situations can be seen as the end of the world or can be taken as an opportunity for renewal, so that your personal gifts or the magic of life are revealed. How many times what we think is a tragedy is, in fact, the universe, in its endless goodness and intelligence, trying to correct the course of an erratic trajectory, conspiring in our favor while we insist in getting in the way.” He became silent for a moment and continued: “A common mistake is to take what we want as if they were evolutionary steps. However, not always one thing has to do with the other. Then, we need to fail in order to learn what is right. It takes time for us to understand, because we believe we already know it. The ego voices its demands in a loud tone, but it is hard to us to listen to the soft voice with which the soul advises us. Hence the importance of silence, quietness and being with yourself.”
“In short, happiness or sadness will define the look each one will have upon oneself. The same goes for pride or humility; vanity or simplicity; illusion or truth; makeup or true healing. What do you seek when you look at yourself at the mirror? This will define whether the world will remain an uncomfortable place or not.”
The young lady burst out laughing. Sarcastically, she said that that was a fine speech, but far from reality. She said she would like to have a single reason to smile. She stated that her life was a tragedy. The Old Man remained stolid and spoke with sweetness: “Financial hardships, health problems, the death of a loved one, frustrated love relationships, unaccomplished dreams, there are many reasons for being sad when you find yourself prisoner of a bad situation; or for being happy, if you consider those the tools that will allow you to live differently and better. Life needs letdowns to change the way you look at it; the hardships will improve the way you tread. Hence, in its own, particular, odd way, through imperfections life makes itself perfect.”
The young woman said she was wasting her time in that conversation. She had better things to do. Before leaving, she accused the monk of having that nice speech because he led a quiet life tending flowers, without ever having to face a setback. She turned around and left. I was shaken; her rudeness had really bothered me. The monk got his cutter and, with his typical composure, went back to tend to the flowers. I kept watching him and saw that his countenance was peaceful. A true, unassailable repose. I even looked at his feet to check if they were on the floor, because I had the feeling he was floating on the air. When he started to whistle an old song, I thought that it was too much; so, I, who had watched all that exchange without uttering a word, decided to wade in. I asked if he felt no offense from the situation. The Old Man looked at me with puzzlement and answered: “Absolutely not. She was the inelegant one, I treated her with consideration and love. I sincerely gave her my best. However, I cannot allow the disharmony of others to disturb my peace. I allow the light of others to infect me; never the shadows.”
“Every conflict or disappointment can either paralyze or challenge evolution. This is the power of the choices. The difference is in the amount of light that is fitted in your will; which virtues you have that are settled in your core. This is how each one gives a true account of their story. Whether we like it or not, the film of anyone’s life narrates a journey of overcoming adversities. Every victory is mixed with failures, mistakes, disappointments, which entail the commitment of trying again, and again. Of course you can do that being safe, but I think it is lighter and cleverer to do it happily”.
I argued that some people had a more difficult life than others. Much to my surprise, the monk stopped pruning the roses, put the cutter in his pocket and sat on a stone bench under the shade of a tree. When he looked at me, he had teary eyes. I asked if he was all right, which he answered by nodding his head yes. Then he said: “Each one faces the perfect lessons that suit them. Life delivers the necessary tools and the proper conditions for the being to illuminate the shadows that dwell within him. No more, no less. In essence, we must exercise love through the many existing virtues. The virtues are the tools of Light, and love is the most important of them.” He looked deep into my eyes and said: “To experience love and joy next to whom we love, in perfect relationship and devoid of problems is wonderful, but it is for the weak. The strong face the challenge of making love and joy blossom in face of adversities.”
I asked if life had been harsh to him. A real tear rolled down the monk’s wrinkled face. I apologized for, unwillingly, having elicited that emotion. He smiled at me and said with his typical sweetness: “It is all right. There is yearning only when there is love. I am thankful for that.” Then he added: “When I was young, I had other dreams; I never thought I would be a member of an esoteric order and live in a monastery. I wanted a comfortable life and a happy family, a nice ideal for my life, and there is nothing wrong with that. I studied hard, got an excellent job, married a nice woman and reached the top of my career when I became CEO of a famous multinational corporation. Soon after, my wife got pregnant and my best dreams were within my reach. I remember thinking ‘I reached the top of the mountain’. However, there were complications in the delivery and, at a moment’s notice, I lost the woman I loved and the child I so wanted.”
I interrupted him to tell he did not have to continue, if he was not comfortable. He gave me a sweet smile and nodded his head, as if saying there was no problem. Then, he said: “If it weren’t enough, a global financial crisis led to the merger of the company I worked for with another one. They thanked me for my services and fired me, I was no longer necessary in the new organization. I dated many women, some quite interesting; I had other excellent jobs, but corporate life no longer suited me. I know stories of people who continued to be successful executives, but things were different with me. I thought I would be sad, but something had changed. Little by little I realized that my success, despite providing comfort and rendering admiration, was a source of anxiety, sleeplessness and nervousness. In my marriage, even though I loved my wife, we used to argue all the time. With the passing of time, for some reason, I constantly felt uncomfortable, even though I was in the height of my professional and marital life. The fact was I lived a beautiful dream most people longed for, but I was not happy. Yes, behind the fine appearance of a strong, efficient man who conquered the world there was, in fact, a frail person unable to achieve his own peace. The reason was a simple one: that type of life was not my dream, and I was beginning to understand that. Another motive was my battlefield. At least in this existence I had to reinvent myself. Engage in new studies, develop other interests, meet different people with different values, the Order. I had a long journey to reach this point in life, with the hardships and joy every journey has, but diametrically opposed to my initial dreams. All the problems, conflicts and frustrations are indispensable for the true dream to present itself and happen. The gaze was changed, and the choices become different. I came to know what happiness was in a way I had never thought possible before.”
The Old Man looked at me like a father and said: “You must see the hidden beauty of life. Love and wisdom are hidden on a sharp curve of the Path. Desires must be frustrated if dreams are to be revealed; life must skid for us to correct the course; the mistake is the map to do right. Need blesses evolution; if you take advantage of a problem, it becomes the emery of virtue. Otherwise, we will continue to take passion for love; knowledge for wisdom; fireworks for the true Light.” He paused briefly and completed: “To understand the hidden beauty of life means to have the ability to see the face of God in all things.”
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.