The caravan moved towards the largest oasis of the Sahara Desert. My intention was to meet a wise dervish, holder of “many secrets of heaven and earth”. We were on the second day of the journey, and I was still getting used to the swaying of the camel, which made me a bit sick. I tried to distract myself with the landscape, but it did not help. Huge dunes seemed to duplicate themselves, giving an impression we were moving in circles. The gorgeous woman with lapis-lazuli eyes, who had allowed me to take part in the journey on the previous day, had disappeared. The caravanner, riding his bright white Arabian horse reviewed the caravan; from time to time he shouted orders in a language I did not understand. I was still under the impact of the events of the previous day, and limited myself to following along with the other participants, afraid of doing something that could jeopardize my meeting with the dervish. Despite the intense heat, our bodies were completely covered with clothes to prevent sunburn and dehydration, which could cause death. At some point, an order was given for the caravan to make a brief stop, so that people could have a light meal. Some people took the time to say their daily prayers as prescribed by their religion. Dismounted from the camel, I walked around aimlessly until I found the caravanner, a bit apart and alone, with his hawk perched on the thick leather arm-length glove he wore on his left hand.
Reluctantly, I decided to move towards him. He saw me. As he did not make any objection, I went closer. To start conversation, I mentioned how inhospitable, lifeless the desert was. The caravanner disagreed with a shake of his head. Next, he took off the blinder that covered the bird’s eyes, gave a command and the hawk flapped its wings, taking flight. In the sky, it glided for minutes, as if saving its strength, sustaining itself on the invisible hot air bubbles that are formed on the scorching sand and go up to the blue sky. All of a sudden, it retracted its wings and, in a steep dive, went to catch something on the ground. When it returned, I could see it carried a serpent on its claws that immediately became its meal. I was surprised with the capability of the bird. The caravanner explained: “If you understand the desert and accept to be part of it, it will provide anything you need.”
I realized he used the desert as a metaphor for the world, for life and all things metaphysical that surround us. I argued that in theory, that was a fine statement, but in practice things were quite different. Once again the caravanner disagreed with my words with a simple shake of his head, and commented: “As we are part of the whole, the whole is within ourselves. Once we realize that, the strength of the whole becomes available to us. We have the capacity to learn how to use it”. He paused and added: “This is what the hawk did.” I immediately disagreed. I said that the bird acts out of instinct or biological determinism. There is no philosophy in its actions. The caravanner nodded in agreement: “Yes, differently from the hawk, you are absolutely free to pick from a diversified range of choices. This enhances your power.” He looked me in the eyes and continued: “This is what you, in the Western world, call faith.” He turned to the desert and added: “That is how they call it in the East as well.”
I said that there were lessons everywhere. I made a sorrowful remark with the well-known saying “we learn out of love or out of pain”. I added that quite often suffering is the most often used teacher. The caravanner looked at me in an odd way, as if he had heard something absurd, and was blunt: “Pain teaches nothing.”
I gave a short speech in support to the learning-by-pain theory. I mentioned a number of instances about myself and others to illustrate my reasoning. The caravanner just looked at me while I spoke as if I was a delusional madman. When I finished, he caught me by surprise: “You are not yet ready to talk to the dervish.” I had not quite understood what was going on, when he passed the sentence: “You will not follow with the caravan. It will be a waste of time and food supplies.” He placed a skin-goat canteen in my hands and told me: “You will wait here. In the evening a guide will take you back to town.” I was about to protest, but the hard gaze of the caravanner reminded me that disobedience in the desert was harshly punished. From afar I saw the caravan break camp and set itself in motion until it disappeared after the first dune.
A turmoil of feelings came over me; from anger to fear; from outrage with the sentence passed by the caravanner to being mad with myself because of my cowardice in passively accepting it. I started to run back and forth, I cursed and swore until I fell prostrated on the sand. My mouth had a bitter taste and my throat was dry. I gulped some water and realized I had to watch my consumption; the sun had still a fair portion of the meridian to pass until night came and, along with it, the rescue. As I had no other option but to wait – and strongly hope that the promise of someone showing up was fulfilled – I sat and tried to calm myself. At that time the only thing left for me to do was to reflect, so I started thinking how different cultures produced behaviors that were considered odd, if understood at all. As I calmed myself down, I reviewed the entire conversation I had had with the caravanner. For me to have any chance to understand him, I would have to remove any trace of evil that might eventually exist in his decision. Therefore, I started by assuming he had been honest and fair, despite my difficulty in understanding what was apparently a paradox, of how a strict man like him could state that pain teaches nothing. I recalled how much suffering I had gone through since childhood to that point in time and the amount of understanding I had developed. Frustrations and disappointments that had eaten me from inside, leading me to different levels of awareness in many learning cycles. All of that because I did not want to learn from love. There is no question the caravanner was mistaken.
With the passing of the hours, and with my acceptance of the situation, I allowed myself to expand my reasoning, just as an exercise of dialectics, contemplating the possibility of the caravanner being right and pain taught nothing. Two past situations I had experienced came to mind. One of them was a disappointment I had with a partner when I found out he was swindling the company. We had a terrible fight, he left the company and, even after the passing of so much time, I was still unable to forgive him, as the recollection made me experience the great sorrow I had had at the time. The other memory that came to mind at that time was the conflictual relationship I had had for many years with my daughter. Because I had divorced her mother when she was too young, for years the father-daughter relationship was filled with complaints, from both parties, of absence of devotion. Harsh words elicited resentment on both sides. However, despite the feud, there was love, and love did not let us give up one another. Little by little, as we matured, either as a father or daughter, the love we carried in our hearts also grew. Slowly, but relentlessly, we were able to smooth the rough edges that had hurt us, we strengthened our bonds and we evolved towards a wonderful relationship.
It was then that a realization hit me: why, in one case, there was transformation and in the other, all that was left was sorrow? Suddenly it all became clear as the desert sky. Yes, it had been love what made the difference. In the first case, the conflict with the old partner, suffering was not capable of eliciting in me any feeling of love. So, despite the painful experience, there was no learning, healing or liberation, as compassion was not there. Sorrow still ruled and nourished a sad logic of mistrust in relation to the world. It occurred to me the evident truth that, although prudence is a virtue, it is impossible to be light without trust; existence becomes too heavy and boring. It is impossible to be happy without being forgiving.
Conversely, in the second case, we let love prevail over all hardships. All the suffering we had experienced gave rise to an even greater love in me and in my daughter. It was then possible the develop a relationship that had been previously unthinkable, and love with a degree of maturity we were not aware we possessed. This has allowed us unlikely choices at first, made peace possible in our relationship, and made us different, better people. I shook my head for realizing it had took me too long to see what was obvious, and I laughed at myself.
If pain was not capable of awakening love, there is no lesson left.
Yes, the caravanner was right. In ecstasy, I stood up and, out of gratitude, shouted to the desert until my voice became hoarse. Filled with joy, I started to dance ceaselessly for I don’t know how long. I spun and spun and spun my body around its own axis until my force ran out and everything went blank.
When I opened my eyes, the blue of the sky had been replaced by the duskish pink of twilight. The first thing I saw were the lapis-lazuli eyes of the gorgeous woman of the previous day. She held my head and tried to give me a little water. I told her all that happened, the memories that had come to my mind and how, by twilight, I had a different understanding than in the morning. I said that despite everything, oddly I felt happy. The woman cracked an enigmatic smile and remarked: “Pain teaches nothing. Suffering is only a tool with the capacity of breaking the shell of the seed of love that lies dormant within each being. If pain is not used with wisdom enough to make love sprout, no lesson from any situation can be learned. There will be sorrow, no forgiveness; pain without healing; prison with no chance of liberation. In evolution, a high level of awareness is worthless unless accompanied by the same measure of love.”
“You must realize that many cross the same desert of suffering. Some get stuck in storms of resentment; others take advantage of the strong winds to move forward in ceaseless stages of improvement. In the two personal situations you just mentioned, there was pain. In one, the outcome was dissension and stagnation; in the other, understanding and evolution. The difference? Love. It is the only master of all lessons. It is love that sets wisdom in motion towards light. Without love, all knowledge rots in a dark room. Pain is only one of the instruments of light used to help love sprout when the shell of the seed is too resistant, preventing the unavoidable beauty of the flower to blossom.”
I closed my eyes and made a prayer with sincere gratitude. I asked if it would be she who would guide me back to town. The woman surprised me once again: “The caravan will continue, and you will join it.” She made a brief pause and added: “Things have changed. You made things change.” With her chin she pointed to the height of a huge dune behind me. When I turned my head around, I saw the caravanner standing, dauntless as a sentinel, watching me. The hawk was perched on his left hand. I realized I had not been left alone at any moment.
She helped me stand up. Then she mounted her black stallion and gave me her hand helping me mount on the backside, to go after the caravan. Then she made a casual comment: “Dervishes also spin in their ceremonies to connect with the invisible side of life.”
I did not know that.
Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.