The shoemaker, the businessman and the irony

I was walking on the narrow and winding streets of the small village located at the foot of the mountain that houses the monastery, not sure if I would find the shop of Loureiro, the shoemaker who loves books and wines still open, for some fresh coffee and good conversation. Loureiro is known for sowing leather as a trade and ideas as an art, and his shop is legendary in the area for its unusual, uncertain hours of operation. So, I was pleased when I turned the corner and saw his vintage bicycle, the only means of transportation he used to commute within the city, leaning against the light pole in front of the shop. At this point, a shiny Mercedes-Benz stopped at the entrance of the shop. The driver got out of the car to open the back door, and it seemed to me it was Loureiro the passenger at the back seat. I thought it odd. Only when I got closer, my near-sighted eyes realized it was not him, but someone who looked very much like him. When I entered the store, the situation became clear. It was Loureiro’s brother; even though they looked pretty much alike, they were not twins. The cobbler introduced us. His brother’s name was Sergei, and he was two years younger. He was as polite and educated as Loureiro, but these were their only similarities. They had different types of elegance, different interests, and opposing looks on life. Sergei did not have the natural, easy smile of the cobbler. Very serious, he made a point of saying he did not have much time because he was a very busy businessman. He owned a big fabric plant in an industrial area some hours away from the village, so he had only a few minutes to enjoy the company of his brother. Loureiro went to make a fresh pot of coffee while we sat at the counter. I asked Sergei what had brought him to our village. The businessman said he had come to take a customer of his, a lady who owned a large retail chain that marketed much of his production, to meet the Old Man, as we affectionately called the oldest monk of the Order. He had just come from the monastery, uphill. The client went back to her home in her own car, so he decided to stop by his brother’s to say hello and would go to his factory shortly. I asked him how his meeting with the Old Man went. He explained that they had arrived without warning. The monk was busy delivering a lecture at the monastery and had asked them to come back on the following day, when he could see them. I asked if they had arranged for the meeting, and Sergei said they did not. I suggested he spend the night, so that we could have supper together. I added that the village, despite being small, was known for its excellent restaurants, a couple of them internationally acclaimed. I added that I would go up to the monastery early in the morning, and that we could go together. He said he was sorry, but he did not have time. His business had a dynamic of its own; he was a very busy entrepreneur with an agenda filled with meetings and engagements. He complained of the financial and professional losses that trip had caused him, because there was some business he did not close and he would have to deal with the disappointment of his best client, who did not meet with the Old Man as he, Sergei, had promised. He had believed the friendship between his brother and the monk would facilitate the meeting. Next, he made an ironic remark, that the Old Man “was busy, training to replace God.”

I did not think it funny. Nor Loureiro, who had placed three steaming cups on the counter and sat next to us. He turned to his brother and said, kindly: “One’s life is no more or less important than another’s. Each one has their own priorities. One’s values will always be in accordance with their level of awareness and loving capability. Each one with their pains and pleasures, shadows and light.” Unhappy, the businessman said it had been a waste of his time to go to the factory of illusions, as he called the monastery, instead of continuing to work at his fabric plant. The shoemaker sipped some coffee and said: “Your comment, more than disparaging about the monk, essentially reflects a lack of respect not for the Old Man, who will continue undisturbed on his journey, but for yourself. The irony shows your inability to deal with your disappointments, with the differences that exist in life and with the choice of others. This shows that you don’t actually grasp the true concept of freedom.”

Sergei fully disagreed. He argued that his factory made possible the survival of hundreds of employees and, indirectly, of thousands of people, if one took into account their families. He also said that people like him could not afford to make mistakes. There was so much he was responsible for, that a bad decision could lead to a decrease in output and loss of jobs, contrary to the monk, who kept distributing Chinese fortune cookies and happiness potions without further consequences. Annoyed, he said that contrary to what happened in the monastery, it was in his factory that the real world occurred, every single day. He added that “no supermarket would accept ideas preached by a dreamer as payment”, and that “religious men and mystics sail the world with the winds that businessmen like me blow, and therefore should be more respectful and reverent towards us.”

Without losing his composure, Loureiro presented his brother his other cheek: “In this existence, everyone lives balancing internal and external activities. It is the lack of Harmony among the different spheres of being that causes all the pain. One must nourish the body not to become too weak to survive. However, it is tremendously important to care for the spirit, to maintain life’s color and beauty at their best, without which one cannot fully enjoy the best of everything, everyone and, above all, of yourself. He paused and added: “All the reason, motivation and strength of the planet will become feeble with the airiness of minutes, without the spirit’s enchantment and power of illumination.”

Sarcastic, Sergei looked around his brother’s shop, as if measuring its small area before stating that the spirit was a flimsy comfort for losers. Loureiro shrugged and said: “It is all a matter of how one understands what victory and success are”. The businessman was surprised with such an absurd statement. He suggested the cobbler compare their lives and judge who had achieved success in life, who was the victorious one. Loureiro was kind in his response: “You, if your measure is money and social status. However, there are other measures for success and different ideas about the actual meaning of victory.” The brother asked him to be clearer. The cobbler explained: “Success may be in places many would not think about, like the plenitude of being, for instance. Victory may lie not in conquering the world, but in illuminating the inner shadows that cause so much suffering.” 

“In part, this helps to explain the use of irony as a weapon. Irony is an attempt to destroy all one cannot understand or live with, and therefore is bothersome. It shows one’s own defeat, a defeat the self does not admit and that gags the soul.”

The businessman interrupted his brother saying he did not believe in the soul. He believed in toil and progress. Loureiro retorted: “So does the soul. Toil and progress are universal spiritual laws. However, one must understand the meaning of toil so that it triggers progress. The purpose of work should not be wealth, but prosperity. Wealth is related to the accumulation of assets; prosperity, to the best use of assets, regardless of how plentiful or scarce they are. Therefore, the importance of each task is not measured by how much money one makes, but by the quality of the reasons and feelings applied to the task. Happiness, love, dignity, peace and freedom may serve as good references.” Sergei retorted by saying that it was nonsense, and a lame reason for Loureiro’s professional failure. He added it was impossible for one to be happy having as a workplace “a small shop, a little bigger than an egg”. He offered his brother a job at the factory, where he would make much more. The cobbler thanked him, but gently refused. 

The businessman said irony was a useful means to expose a situation and bring out the truth. Loureiro fully disagreed: “Irony is an act of violence disguised in a comment intended to be intelligent or funny. In fact, many a time, it elicits laughter and applause. However, beyond the appearance, it reveals how out of step it is regarding the fundamental freedoms. Freedom allows differences of being and living that are tremendously important for enquiry and the ensuing evolution of ideas and behaviors of humankind. Irony is often connected to intolerance.” 

The businessman feigned surprise when he commented that “he did not know criticisms were forbidden”. Loureiro kept a composed tone: “Criticisms are always welcome. However, criticism only fulfills its purpose if made in order to illuminate, educate and further development. Any comment intended to deprecate, harm or to cast a cloak of darkness becomes offensive. Oral violence does not necessarily require cursing. Offenses have never made humankind move a single inch forward. If we pay careful attention, we will see that irony says more about the archer than the target.” 

He sipped some more coffee and continued: “The meanness of irony or sarcasm is in taking a situation out of context and coating it with the paint of ridicule, in order to strip the person of their value, either moral or qualities of character. Irony is the aggressiveness of Harlequin disguising the violence of his intentions. It is the weapon of those who cannot face a problem with all the hardships innate to personal relationships; they just wish for a shortcut to make their will prevail and nourish the illusion that they are bigger and better than the other. You can see how much pride and vanity are embedded in each word of irony.” He paused briefly and then continued: “The power of sarcasm emerges in tandem with the fading of love and wisdom of he who speaks it. Deep down, ironic or sarcastic people are those who do not acknowledge their bitterness, because of how strong it is. Irony is this bitterness in disguise on the stages of the world.”

Sergei thanked him for that “cheap philosophy”, said he would like to continue the conversation, but he had a lot of work waiting for him at the factory and would call his brother soon to set up another visit. He added that the job offer was still good. He took out a box of happy pills and swallowed one with the little coffee still left in his cup. Without anyone’s asking, he showed the medicine box and made a point of saying that “it was the price of success.” He used his mobile phone to call the driver. Almost immediately the Mercedes-Benz stopped right next to Loureiro’s bicycle that was leaning against the light pole in front of the small shop. The businessman looked at both, the car and the bike; then turned to his brother and asked if he “understood the difference”. Loureiro nodded: “Yes, of course. However, this is just the visible tip of a huge existential iceberg. These objects are on the surface of our lives. In essence, the difference is much deeper than just a car and a bike. These just move our bodies; we must understand what sets our spirits in motion.”

Once his brother was gone, Loureiro went to refill our cups. I said I had always believed having a good mood was a virtue. The cobbler placed the steaming cups on the counter and said: “There is no question. Good mood is a most appreciated virtue in the High Lands; illuminated spirits are never grumpy or sullen. Quite different from irony, good mood is characterized by the sensibility of choosing happiness to walk the Path. Irony is mockery; good mood is playfulness. Irony is vicious; good mood is merriment. The difference between mockery and playfulness is that we mock all we hate or don’t understand, whereas we play with situations and people we love.” He sipped his coffee and concluded: “Irony is the triumph of narcissism and bitterness; good mood is the victory of love and joy.” 

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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