Issue nº 103

Manuel is an important and necessary man | Manuel is a free man
Manuel goes to Paradise

Manuel is an important and necessary man
     Manuel needs to be busy. Otherwise he feels that life has no meaning, that he is wasting his time, that society has no need for him, nobody loves him, nobody wants him.
     So as soon as he wakes up e has a whole set of tasks to do: watch the news on the television (something may have happened during the night), read the newspaper (something may have happened yesterday), ask his wife not to let the children be late for school, get the car, a taxi, a bus, the subway, but always concentrated, looking into the vacuum, consulting his watch, if possible making a few calls on his cell phone – and making sure that everyone sees that he is an important man, a man useful to the world.
     Manuel arrives at work and starts to pore over the pile of paper that awaits him. If he is an employee, he does everything possible for the boss to notice that he arrived on time. If he is the boss, he sets them all to work right away; if there are no important tasks to do, Manuel will see to developing some, creating some, implementing a new plan, establishing new lines of action.
     Manuel goes to lunch – but never alone. If he is the boss, he sits down with his friends, discusses new strategies, speaks badly of the competitors, always keeps a card hidden up his sleeve, complains (with a touch of pride) about being overworked. If Manuel is an employee, he also sits down with his friends, complains about the boss, says he is working a lot of overtime, claims in despair (and with a touch of pride) that so much at the firm depends on him.
     Manuel – boss or employee – works the whole afternoon. From time to time he looks at his watch, it's time to go home but he still has a detail to solve here, a document to sign there. He is an honest man; he wants to justify his salary, what others expect of him, the dreams of his parents who went to such great pains to give him the necessary education.
     Finally he returns home. He takes a shower, gets into some comfortable clothes and sits down to have dinner with his family. He asks the children about school, his wife how she spent the day. Now and again he talks about his work, just to serve as an example – because he does not like to bring worries home. Dinner over, the children – who are not the least bit interested in examples, duties or any such things – immediately leave the table and go to sit in front of the computer. Manuel too goes to sit down in front of that old apparatus from his childhood called the television. Again he watches the news (something may have happened in the afternoon).
     He always goes to bed with some technical book on the bedside table – whether boss or employee, he knows that the competition is great and that if you do not keep up, you run the risk of losing your job and then have to face the worst of all curses: unemployment.
     He talks to his wife for a while – after all, he is a gentle, hardworking and loving man who cares for his family and is ready to defend it in any circumstances. Sleep comes soon and Manuel falls asleep knowing that the next day he will be very busy, so he needs to recoup his energies.
     That night Manuel has a dream. An angel asks him: “Who do you do this?” He replies that he is a responsible man.
     The angel then asks: “Would you be able to stop just for fifteen minutes during the day and look at the world, at yourself, and just do nothing?” Manuel says that he would love to, but he does not have the time for that. “You’re trying to fool me,” says the angel. “Everybody has the time for that, what they lack is courage. Work is a blessing when it helps us to think about what we are doing. But is becomes a curse when its only use is to prevent us from thinking about what our life means.”
     Manuel wakes up in the middle of the night, covered in a cold sweat. Courage? How can a man who sacrifices himself for his family not have the courage to stop for fifteen minutes?
     Best to go back to sleep, it’s only a dream, such questions lead nowhere, and tomorrow is going to be a very busy day.

Second chapter: Manuel is a free man
     Manuel has worked for 30 years non-stop, gives his children an education, sets a good example, devotes his entire time to work, and never wonders: “Is there any meaning to what I am doing?” His sole concern is to know that the busier he is, the more important he will be in the eyes of society.
     His children grow up and leave home, he is promoted at work, then one day he is given a watch or a pen in recognition of all those years of dedication, the friends shed a tear or two, and the long-expected moment arrives: he is retired, free to do whatever he likes!
     The first few months, every now and again he pays a visit to the office where he worked, chats with the old friends, and relishes the pleasure of doing what he has always dreamed of: sleeping late. He goes for walks on the beach or in town, then there is the house in the country he managed to buy with so much sweat, discovers gardening and little by little penetrates the mystery of the plants and flowers. Manuel has time, all the time in the world. He travels, using part of the money he has managed to put aside. He visits museums, in the space of two hours learns what painters and sculptors from different eras took centuries to develop, but at least he has the feeling that he is improving his culture. He takes hundreds, thousands of pictures and sends them to friends – after all, they have to know how happy he is!
     Some more months go by. Manuel learns that gardens do not follow exactly the same rules as men – what he has planted is going to take a while to grow, and it is use trying to see if the rosebush has buds yet. In a moment of sincere reflection he discovers that all that he has seen on his travels was a landscape outside the window of a tourist bus, monuments that are now stored away on 6x9 photos, but the truth is that he felt no special emotion – he was more concerned about telling his friends than he was in living the magic experience of finding himself in a foreign country.
     He still watches all the newsreels on television, reads more newspapers (because he has more time), considers himself to be a very well-informed person, capable of discussing things that he did not the time before to study.
     He looks for someone to share his opinions – but they are all immersed in the river of life, working, doing something, envying Manuel his freedom and at the same time happy to be useful to society, to be “busy” at something important.
     Manuel seeks for comfort in his children. They always treat him with great affection – he has been an excellent father, an example of honesty and dedication – but they too have other worries, although they consider Sunday lunch a duty.
     Manuel is a free man, enjoys a reasonable financial situation, is well-informed, has an impeccable past, but what now? What to do with all this freedom, won with such hardship? Everyone greets him, everyone praises him, but no-one has any time for him. Little by little Manuel begins to feel sad and useless – despite all the years he has spent serving the world and his family.
     One night an angel appears in his dream: “What have you done with your life? Did you try to live it according to your dreams?”
     Manuel wakes up in a cold sweat. What dreams? This was his dream: to have a diploma, to get married, to have children, to give them an education, to retire, to travel. Why was the angel bothering him with all these senseless questions?
     Another long day begins: the newspapers, the news on the TV, the garden and lunch. Sleep a little, do whatever you feel like doing and at that very moment discover that you do not feel like doing anything. Manuel is a free and sad man, one step away from depression, because he was always too busy to think about the meaning of life, while the years flowed by under the bridge. He remembers the lines of a poem: “he passed through life/but did not live.”
But it is too late to accept that, so better change the subject. Freedom, conquered with so much struggling, is just exile in disguise.

End: Manuel goes to Paradise
     In the two preceding columns I analyzed Manuel’s life, how he was always busy and finding that work – whatever the work may be – gives life a meaning, but never wondering what that meaning might be.
     Later on Manuel retires. For a while he enjoys the freedom of not having to wake up at a certain time and being able to use his time to do whatever he pleases. But soon he falls into depression: he feels useless, far removed from the society he has helped to build, abandoned by his now grown-up children, unable to understand the meaning of life – since he never bothered to ask himself the famous question: “What am I doing here?”
     Well, one day our dear, honest, dedicated Manuel ends up dying – as will happen to all the Manuels, Paulos, Marias and Monicas in this life. And here I resort to the words of Henry Drummond, whose brilliant book “The Supreme Gift” describes what happens from this point on:

     “All of us at some moment have asked the same question as every other generation: “What is the most important thing in our existence?”
     We want to use our days in the best possible way, for nobody else can live our lives for us. So we need to know where we should direct our efforts, what is the supreme objective to be met.
     We are used to hearing that the most important treasure in spiritual life is faith. Many centuries of religion rest on this simple word. Do we hold faith to be the most important thing in the world? Well, we are quite wrong.
     In his epistle to the Corinthians, chapter XIII, Saint Paul takes us to the early days of Christianity. He ends by saying: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”
     This is not some superficial opinion of the author of these words, Saint Paul. After all, talking about Faith a moment before, in the same letter, he said: “And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” Paul did not avoid the question; on the contrary, he compared faith and charity and concluded: “(...) the greatest of these is charity.”

     Matthew offers us a classic description of the Day of Final Reckoning: the Son of God sits on a throne and like a shepherd separates the goats from the sheep.
     At that moment the great question for human beings will not be: “How did I live?” but rather: “How did I love?”
     The final test of all quests for salvation will be Love. No account will be taken of what we did, what we believed in, what we achieved. None of this will be asked of us. What we will be asked is how we loved our neighbor. The mistakes we have made will not even be remembered. We will be judged for the good we have failed to do. Because keeping Love locked up within ourselves is to go against the spirit of God, it proves that we never knew Him, that He loved us in vain, and that His Son died to no avail.”

     In this case, our Manuel is saved at the moment of his death, because although he never gave any meaning to his life, he was capable of loving, providing for his family, and doing what he did with dignity. However, although it is a happy ending, the rest of his days on earth were very complicated.
     Repeating a phrase I heard from Shimon Peres at the World Forum in Davos: “optimist and pessimist both end up dying. But they each use their lives in a completely different manner.”


New book
“The Zahir” is being published all over the world this year. Click here for more information.

Issue nº 103