Machiavelli said to keep your friends close, while keeping your enemies closer still, but no one can ever hurt you as much as a loved one ever will. When betrayal willfully destroys the bond of love uniting two people, the resulting excruciating pain is directly proportional to the emotional investment once made. Pain inflicted by an enemy is the natural consequence of rage, but pain inflicted by a loved one is an unnatural deformation of the noblest emotion, one that should never age. Whether these are universal truths inextricably related to human nature, I cannot say. But the King of Kings was hardly the only one betrayed with a kiss on an infamous day.
My girlfriend and I had gone to the mall, as she had errands to run. The solicitous company of a boyfriend was offered because silence is no one´s best friend. As she entered a shop, I stood outside marveling at the newly released flat screen TV. What fascinated me most was the ongoing process of micronization, vastly amplifying the processing power of electronics, while concomitantly reducing their size. To imagine that the processing power of a small cellphone had already surpassed that of an old mainframe computer, previously housed in a large room, was a sobering realization. Technological innovation had downsized the large rectangular shapes of TVs into flat screen panels affixed on walls like paintings. In the future, the advent of nanotechnology would marry the carbon based human lifeform with silicon-based chips, rendering the distinction between man and machine less evident. The digital revolution had arrived to stay, but there was a price to be paid.
At the time, approximately 75% of the Brazilian population earned minimum wage or less. At the price asked for this flat screen TV, a minimum wage earner would have to work an entire year just to pay for it. TVs, once accessible household items, now became a luxury good of significant social status in Brazil. In a country beset by extreme social inequalities, the mere act of walking through a shopping mall was a deeply alienating experience, always being so close to goods that enticed the senses, but so far away from the possibility of purchasing them. For vast segments of the population, the modern world had an unaffordable price tag
“What the hell are you looking at? You can´t even afford to buy your own underwear!”
These were the words of my girlfriend… They broke much more than the surrounding morning silence that day. They broke my heart. To be in the company of someone who allegedly loves you, but still feel absolutely alone is the worse form of abandonment, one first experienced that day. An explanation of this overflowing emptiness requires proper context, a recapitulation of events recently transpired.
Our relationship began when I was an undergraduate student at Princeton, and she was attending law school in Brazil. We only saw each other during my summer vacations when I travelled to meet her. Despite my incessant pleadings, she always refused to visit me in the US, being absent even on my graduation day. Money was not an issue, as her brothers were well accustomed to travelling overseas, and her parents never complained about the expenses. Why she chose never to visit me is an unsolved mystery to this day, but one that should have elicited further inquiry at the time, possibly sparing me from much future emotional distress.
After graduation, the possibility of her moving to the US was never realistically entertained, for reasons she never explained. The choice before me was to pursue a life in a beloved country or travel abroad for a beloved woman. The fatidic choice made defied reason, but when the heart takes the lead in one´s life, no amount of hardship troubles the mind. Attending college in the US had been a lifelong dream, demanding countless years of sacrifice, exacting a price on my childhood that only adults should be required to pay. My perennial concern was not merely academic, but financial. There was a price attached to my future education, one my family could not afford. In this sense, my acceptance at Princeton with a scholarship was a lifetime achievement. The amazement of those around me was only surpassed by my sense of personal accomplishment. Of the many sacrifices made along the way, my emotional life was probably the most exacting. Having a clear objective in mind by fourth grade, nothing else could detract me from the road ahead.
My stalwart belief in true love also made no provisions for transient relationships. Only a long-term romantic partnership was even remotely conceivable to me, something untenable while my education remained the unassailable priority. When I finally met my girlfriend, her importance in my life confounded those around me. They were oblivious to the long road travelled so that I could finally establish a meaningful emotional attachment to a woman. The importance of biding my time and making the right choice was ingrained in my mind and seared onto my heart. The loving example set by my parents was the one I set out to emulate.
Upon my return to Brazil, for the first time, the present took over the reins of my life, always previously held by future dreams. Despite leaving my closest friends, and myriad professional and academic opportunities behind in the US, I returned to Brazil armed with a Princeton degree, fully expecting to put to good use the countless years of studious sacrifice. The Brazilian government vehemently disagreed. Brazil was never a country that valued education, but having studied in American schools most of my life, only now was this lesson learned. Despite having studied in a world-renowned academic institution, comprising the American Ivy League, Brazil would only acknowledge my college degree as valid and legally admissible if a Brazilian Federal university recognized it as such.
This entailed a time consuming, expensive, mindless bureaucratic process that required years for completion, with no prior certainty of a positive outcome. In the meantime, for all practical purposes, I was an unemployed High School graduate imprisoned in a mindless bureaucratic limbo, from which there seemed to be no rational escape. All this was unbeknownst to me before leaving the US. Certain questions in life are so irrational, they are rarely asked. The notion that a Princeton degree was not good enough for a country that admittedly had one of the worst education systems in the world was a sick joke even by the insane standards of the most demented mind. Upon hearing this news, I could at least count on my girlfriend´s caring words of emotional support...
“You better prepare yourself… there´s a 90% chance they are not going to recognize your degree, and you´ll have to go back to school again! I wouldn´t keep my hopes up if I were you…Yours is a very difficult situation…”, she said.
Now that school was no longer in session, life taught me the hardest of lessons. The recognition Brazil awarded me for having been educated in Princeton was the ignominy of unemployment. This was an unmerited treatment so irrational that even with the passing of years finding any reasonable justification mystifies me completely. Having only previously tasted of triumph, despite all the great challenges faced in the past, the bitter taste of an unforeseen disaster proved to be an enormous personal trial. This dizzying feeling of forced economic, social and professional inertia, amid a world in perpetual motion, assailed my once indestructible sense of self-esteem in ways never experienced.
Whereas before my girlfriend looked up at me with a quiescent, beaming admiration, now she was emotionally distant, and occasionally abusive. The penury of unemployment accompanied by the bitterness of insensitivity is a heavy load to bear. One that no prior life experience had prepared me to face. For the first time in my life, I found myself imprisoned inside an irrationally tragic limbo from which there was no immediate escape. Though my girlfriend did not immediately terminate the relationship, her demeanor suddenly changed. The true companionship so longed for, especially in the most trying moments of hardship, was not on offer. When you sacrifice your lifelong dreams for someone, you entrust them to be the caretaker of your hope, but this is a bet against chance only rarely won. When an important life choice is not wisely made, the promise of a welcoming future one forsakes. On both counts, experience proved to be an unforgiving teacher, treating a highly schooled dreamer as an unprincipled cheater. This is the proper context for the highly insensitive words uttered that day in the mall.
Life may force traumatic moments of crippling public humiliation upon anyone. A loved one never should. This is what I could never make her understand. If mutual compassion is the bridge between two human beings, insensitivity is the centrifugal force shearing bonds of affection, scarring human beings. That day on the mall, we had a serious argument, one that ended with a kiss that only portended future moments of emotional betrayal and abandonment, considerably more severe in lasting impact. Though our relationship would still endure for several years, the heart broken that day, broken remained. The downside of being able to take considerable punishment in life is that you also experience considerable pain. Machiavelli said to keep your friends close, while keeping your enemies closer still, but no one can ever hurt you as much as a loved one ever will. The betrayal of someone close… will your love always kill. Keep your enemies close, but keep your loved ones closer still.
Disclaimer: The picture accompanying these words depicts myself and two friends at a Black Tie Party, London, circa December of 2014. With the memory of a friend, one need never contend.