'Tell me, what’s your secret?'
'What do you mean?' She did not turn to face him. Standing at the floor-to-ceiling glass window, her outward gaze level, she looked like she was addressing her reflection on that flawless surface.
'Well, how do you…'
He paused, suddenly self-conscious as he realised that what he was about to say would make him look like some fawning sycophant. But his admiration was genuine. As was his curiosity.
'How do I…?' She still did not turn to face him.
He coughed. 'How do you live like you do? So… boldly, without any scruples. I look at you and I see this confidence that borders on cold ruthlessness.'
She laughed. It was a surprisingly warm sound, a sound of delight, not mockery.
'Aah, how you wound me. Cold? Ruthless? Without scruples?' She finally turned to look at him. Her eyes and half-smile were playful. They reassured him.
'Well, I guess they’re rather harsh, maybe inaccurate, words. You know I’m clumsy like that.' He chuckled, rubbing his jaw just below his left ear.
She kept her gentle gaze on him, encouraging him.
'What I mean is, you seem… untouched by the sort of things – burdens – that most people carry. In the time that I’ve known you, I’ve seen how… light you are, but not in a silly, frivolous way. Not like a child who hasn’t quite lived enough – children have an excuse for their innocence – but more like, like a monk.'
Her smile widened ever so slightly, but he caught a hint of reproach in her eyes.
'Oh I know, you don’t care for mystics and their brand of ‘spiritual detachment’ mumbo-jumbo. But I see that same kind of… peace, equanimity, in you. But it’s harder, like granite. Or a diamond.'
The reproach left her eyes. He felt relieved. Why did he need her approval like this? And why, in her presence, did it feel like a weakness?
She was looking out the window again. 'It’s no secret, and certainly not some superpower out of the reach of ordinary mortals.'
He kept silent in her pause, expectant. She straightened her stance. There, he thought, that was what he had meant, that calm certitude she embodied in her very carriage. Those shoulders, that brow, they had never bowed under that force which crushes so many.
And now she was about to tell him why.
'Most people are chained to three great weights; shame, fear and anxiety. This explains the heaviness in the souls of those you see all around you. You said earlier that I seemed to have no scruples. You’re wrong. Having scruples is defined as being motivated to action and thought by a governing ethical principle. I am so motivated, and my governing principle is this: I never feel any undeserved shame, unwarranted fear or unnecessary anxiety.'
She was now looking at him. He could have sworn there were flames in her eyes. Or perhaps that was just the dusking sun reflected in them.
'You qualified those things, those weights. You said 'undeserved', 'unwarranted', and 'unnecessary'. I get the sense that they're important distinctions.'
'Yes, they are. Human beings aren’t robots. We do feel shame, fear and anxiety. But there are ideologies prevalent today that have warped our sense of such emotions. We have been taught to feel ashamed, afraid and anxious for all the wrong reasons. Whether it’s about our sexuality, our sense of identity and security, or our physical and psychological needs and wants, they have each been corrupted – in many cases inverted – by religious, social, political and commercial ideologies.'
Yes, he thought, I’m beginning to understand where she gets her power from. For that’s what it was, a power, one capable of breaking chains.
She stepped away from the window and walked to the lounge chair where he sat and lowered herself next to him. His eyes never left her graceful movements all that time.
'Religious notions of sin, punishment and redemption. Social constructs of prestige and status. Political illusions of imminent danger and ever-present enemies. Commercial ideals of identity through material possessions. Is it really all that surprising that the greater part of humanity feels ashamed, afraid and anxious?'
'Well, now that you’ve put it that way, the poor buggers never really stood a chance.'
He heard a slight intake of breath at his comment. He almost winced. He braced himself for the coming rebuke.
'I told you before, this perception you have of me, it isn’t due to some superpower I possess that is denied to others. A person can make the conscious decision to not feel ashamed, afraid or anxious without good reason.' Her emphasis on ‘good reason’ rang like a clarion, though she hadn't raised her voice.
He pre-empted her. 'Yes, I know what you’re about to say. Submitting any shame, fear or anxiety to the scrutiny of reason will determine whether it’s deserved, warranted, necessary… or not.'
She grinned at him, a beam of comradely acknowledgement. He smiled back, chiding himself for delighting perhaps a tad too easily in her rewards.
'So now you know my secret.'
'Yes, I suppose I do.' He couldn’t resist. 'Though it wasn’t quite the revelational scoop I was expecting. Bit of an anti-climax, really.'
She chuckled. 'My dear, if but a third of humanity cast off their undeserved, unwarranted, unnecessary chains, this world would be the closest thing to Paradise, for anything a slave can accomplish, a free man can do ten times better. And he will free others through his own example, if they will only learn and practice what he has to teach them.'