The building of the monastery is a solid construction made of stone walls, and has crossed the centuries as firmly as the mountain that houses it. Or almost. One of the walls started to present signs of deterioration, and I was put in charge of its maintenance. Among the many contractors, I selected one whose owner was a high-school friend who seemed to be able to carry out the task. Despite the warnings that it was not just a mere fix-up but a restoration through which all original features must be kept, the outcome was a disaster. I was extremely annoyed when I met the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order. It was late afternoon, the time of day he dedicated to reading. He asked me to follow him to the library. We sat in comfortable armchairs next to huge windows, the beautiful forest around as landscape. He served us steaming coffee. Soon I started to unravel a rosary of complaints and regrets about the renovation of the wall. I said I was very disappointed with that friend of mine, whose job fell well short of what had been agreed upon and worse, of what had been promised. The Old Man sweetly agreed: “It was very bad, indeed. The work will have to be redone.”
I said I regretted my choice, but had already taken action. I had sent him an abrasive message reporting my complaints and demanding the work on the wall be redone according to the required standards. Still unhappy, I called him and harshly voiced my criticism. The monk looked at me with eyes filled with compassion, and asked: “How do you feel?” I confessed I felt bad; my feelings ranged from sadness for having quarreled with a friend and anger for being disappointed by him. The Old Man commented: “This is much worse than a poorly fixed wall. No one needs a perfect wall to be happy; but a peaceful heart, yes.”
I said we should not condone mistakes, or else humankind would not advance. The monk furrowed his brow and said: “The best way to tend the world is to improve yourself. Don’t bother criticizing the evolutionary stage of anyone but yourself. Understand that each one has their own limitations, and can only offer what they have. We must be patient with the limitations of others, so that we can develop an environment of tolerance and peace.” He paused briefly to complete: “The Universe, as a good educator, will give each one the necessary lessons to leverage the transformations required for their proper evolution.” I asked if we should not voice our dissatisfaction and fight for our rights. The monk immediately replied: “Always. However, the way we do that makes all the difference, and may be the limit between the shadows and the light.”
I said that even though I had used harsh words, I had spoken only the truth. It was the best way for him to learn how to be more meticulous, or not commit himself to something he was not able to deliver. The monk wanted to know: “So, why are you feeling bad, annoyed?” I said that even though I had been fair, I was surprised because my friend felt hurt. I thought that ludicrous, as he was not the aggrieved party. The Old Man fixed his gaze in my eyes and said, softly: “Do you realize the feeling that moved you when you criticized him? Can you see that the intent behind your words was not to educate, but to harm? This is why you are feeling so bad.”
I strongly disagreed. I held my ground saying that I had stuck to the truth and that my words were fair. The monk corrected me: “There is no question that you spoke the truth accurately. However, I question how fair you were.” I was outraged, that was all I needed. The guy wasted our money, gave us a headache and, as if it weren’t enough, became the victim. The Old Man did not allow my impatience to infect him, and continued, in his usual soft tone of voice: “There is no victim. I often reject the character of this mask that slows the advancement of people. I believe everyone should understand the responsibilities not only of their actions, but of their reactions. To pay back evil with evil does not trigger advancement, it only nourishes the shadows. To realize what feeling elicits your response is to know the exact difference between justice and revenge. If, in fact you want to educate or only to punish. The limit between justice and revenge is love. There is no justice if the decision does not involve forgiveness, if you do not allow the chance of renewal for the other.”
“Perhaps this explains why you feel so bad. Even though you said only the truth, you lost the chance to be just. Justice is a step above the reality of the facts. At least in its more refined meaning. Maybe the best you can do is go to your friend and apologize.”
He wasn’t serious, that was not possible. The good monk ought to be kidding. I was the one who had been aggrieved, I was made a fool of before the entire Order for having made that choice, I was the one let down by the unfulfilled promise of my long-time friend, and I was the one to apologize? No, it was too much humiliation. The Old Man corrected me once again, sweetly as always: “There is only humiliation if we accept the offense, never when we give our best. To understand your difficulties makes you tolerant with the limits of others. Thus, the grandness of humility will remain.” I rebuked that the fact that originated that situation gave me reason. The monk retorted: “Being right is the least important. What matters is not missing the chance to decode our feelings. When they make us sad, they are driven by the shadows. However, we will always have the chance of transmutation, suffice to illuminate them. To that end, we must reinvent the understanding – choice binomial. Therefore, we allow ourselves to be on a plane of happiness and lightness, as we dare to think differently in terms of changing our choices and thus give what was unimaginable until then. The burden that has been heavy so far will turn into wings.”
I said that my friend was a very proud person, and his sorrow was a trick for him not to admit his own mistakes. The Old Man patiently explained: “Pride is a shortcoming of the ego, which, deceived by the shadows and propelled by fear, wants to protect itself. You cannot allow pride to dominate your choices, or you will be infected by the dark environment that imprisons in the same cell all those emotionally involved in the situation. If your friend wants to insist on reacting like that, it is his problem; you cannot prevent it. However, you can free yourself from this dangerous zone of darkness where such emotions usually hold you prisoner. To do that, you must act in accordance with the movements of light while putting into practice your purest, most subtle feelings. To undo the harm that you caused, even if much less than the one you suffered, is the road to plenitude,” he concluded, his gaze lost on the mountains: “Give your best, always, even if the other won’t take it. Refusing is a problem he has. There is no need for forgiveness to be granted, it is a unilateral decision. You sincerely apologize for your mistake, you forgive who caused you harm, free yourself from the dungeon created by the situation and move on.”
I argued that I had to protect myself, and could not expose myself for nothing. The monk furrowed his brow and asked: “Do you realize that what steals your peace is the ego that tries to protect itself behind the shadow of pride, nourished by the fear that the other will not acknowledge that you were right? Why do you depend so much on being accepted and applauded by others? Why do you crave it? Can’t you see how unnecessary this is? This is the root of disharmony of being and of all our relations. Whatever the reaction of your friend, it cannot stop you from doing your best action. This is what makes the spirit truly free.”
For quite some time we did not utter a word. Then I excused myself and withdrew. I was not convinced by the arguments of the monk and wanted to think about them.
We met the following morning in the refectory. I hadn’t seen him come until he asked: “What happened? Your features changed, you look light.” I told him that last night, after thinking about our conversation, I had called my friend and said that, despite the unsatisfactory outcome of the renovation of the wall, I wanted to apologize for the harsh words I had used to convey my unhappiness. He was affable, even though he did not acknowledge any mistake on his part. He claimed he did not know it was a restoration, even though I had said it many times before he had begun work. But I did not insist. I realized his arguments were just details with no importance, as each one will act precisely according to their level of awareness. The animosity came to an end, and I realized that once the truth is spoken in a clear, soft way, it is like a seed that will germinate after the rains. I had regained my joy and, with it, my peace.
The Old Man arched his lips in a mild smile and said: “This is the lesson of the wall in all its existential dimensions.” As if seeing a huge question mark on my face from the way I looked, the monk further explained: “From ancient time, the notion of the wall has been connected to the need of protection. However, we must be careful how to build the wall that will keep our life safe, because the wall that protects is the same that prevents us from seeing and going beyond. To live is much more than being safe within walls, it is the fantastic and decisive flight over the abyss of fear.”
Gently translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.