CHAPTER 1 A Controversial and Surprising Man
WE WERE LIVING IN A TIME WHEN PEOPLE, DEVOID OF creativity and caught in a web of sameness, were overly predictable. Actors and actresses, show business personalities, politicians, religious leaders, executives of large corporations—all were tiring, boring and often insufferable. They were repetitious in their worn-out jargon. They neither appealed to emotion nor inspired the intellect. They needed a marketing strategy and a media makeover to repackage them and render them interesting. Even young people no longer had any enthusiasm for their idols.
Suddenly, as we rode the waves of tedium, a man appeared, breaking the imprisonment of routine. He turned our minds upside down, or at least my mind and the minds of those closest to him. He became the greatest sociological phenomenon of our time. Though he shunned the attention of the media, it was all but impossible to remain indifferent to his thoughts.
Without revealing his identity, he declared himself a seller of dreams and, inviting others to join him, soon blew like a hurricane into the heart of the great city. He was an enigmatic stranger followed by strangers. And he made demands:
“Whoever would follow me must first recognize his madness and face his stupidity.” And he proclaimed to passersby, “Happy are those who are transparent, for theirs is the kingdom of mental health and wisdom. Unhappy are those who hide their sickness behind their schooling, money or social standing, for theirs is the kingdom of insanity. But let’s be honest. We are all experts at hiding. We squeeze into the tiniest of holes to hide, even under the banner of sincerity.”
The man rocked society, astounding those who heard him. Wherever he went, he caused a ruckus. He lived beneath bridges and overpasses or in homeless shelters. Never in our time had someone so unassuming had such impact. A pauper without health insurance, welfare or money for his meals, he had the courage to say:
“I ask not that you be wanderers like me. My dream is that you will be wanderers in your own right, that you make your way through territories few intellectuals dare to explore. Follow no map or compass. Search for yourselves, lose yourselves. Make each day a new chapter, every twist in the road a new story.”
He criticized modern man, who lived like a machine, never pondering what it meant to be a thinking being or reflecting on the mysteries of existence. Mankind walked in the shallows of existence and intellect. Some protested, “Who is this audacious invader of our private lives? What insane asylum did he escape from?” Others discovered that they had no time for what was essential, especially for themselves.
Only a small group of friends slept where he slept and lived where he lived. I was one of them. Those who crossed his path didn’t know if what they were seeing was real or imagined.
His origins were unknown even to his disciples. When asked about his identity, he would repeat, “I’m a wanderer moving on the path of time, looking for himself.”
He was destitute but had what millionaires lacked. His home was expansive: sometimes park benches, sometimes the steps of a building or the shade of a tree. His gardens extended throughout the city. He contemplated them as if they were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, cultivated only to enchant his eyes. Of every flower, he made a poem, of every leaf a dart to plunge into the wellsprings of sensibility, of every weathered tree trunk a moment to soar on the wings of imagination.
“Dawns do not go unappreciated. Sunsets do not go unnoticed but invite me to repose and to think about my folly,” the dreamseller would say. He behaved unlike anyone we’d ever met. While others loved to glorify themselves, he enjoyed reflecting on his smallness.
One morning, after barely sleeping under a highway overpass, he stretched, took several deep breaths, and drank in the morning sunlight. After reflection, he went to the center of a nearby university campus and shouted to the students:
“We are free to come and go but not to think. Our thoughts and choices are restricted to the confines of our brains. How can we be free if we cover our bodies with clothing but our minds are stark naked? How can we be free if we contaminate the present with the future, if we steal from the present our inalienable right to drink from the fountain of tranquillity?”
On one occasion, three psychiatrists passing by heard one of his speeches. One of them was taken with the ragged stranger, but the other two said, “That man is a danger to society. He should be locked up.”
Reading their lips, he replied, “Don’t worry, my friends, I’m already locked up. Just look around at this grand and beautiful mental hospital.”
In modern societies, child labor was outlawed, but the dreamseller said that those same nations committed a crime against children by encumbering their minds with mass consumption, allowing them to grow up too fast, and overloading them with activities.
“Our children are spared the horrors of war; they don’t see houses destroyed or mutilated bodies, but their imagination is obliterated, their capacity for play inhibited, their imagination kidnapped by unnecessary trinkets. Isn’t that its own form of horror?” he said. “There’s a reason that depression and other emotional disturbances among children and adolescents have increased so much.” He said this with tears in his eyes. His own children had perished in a tragic accident, but at the time, we knew nothing about the details of his mysterious past.
Once, at the end of classes, he “invaded” a private elementary school whose pupils were the children of upper-middle- and upper-class parents. Granite floors, marble columns, stained-glass windows, air-conditioned classrooms. Every pupil had a personal computer. The only problem was that the children were restless, found no delight in learning and were not developing critical thinking. To them, school and the educational environment were almost unbearable. As soon as they heard the bell, they would dash out as if released from prison.
Their parents, when they came for them, didn’t have a minute to spare. They would scold their children if they were late. The dreamseller slipped past security, put on a clown nose and began running, jumping, dancing in the patio. When they saw this crazy man, many of the nine- and ten-year-olds forgot they were on their way out and went over to watch him.
Opening his arms like an airplane, he pretended to fly to a small garden. There, he imitated a toad, a cricket and a rattlesnake. Then he performed magic tricks. He produced a flower from his sleeve and a bunny from his jacket. And after a few minutes of amusement he told the attentive children:
“Behold the greatest magic of all.” And he took a seed from his pocket. “If you were a seed, what kind of tree would you like to grow into?” He asked them to close their eyes and imagine the tree they would be. Each child imagined a different tree, from the diameter of the trunk, the shape of the crown and the size of the branches, to the most diverse types of leaves and flowers.
Several parents were desperately looking for their children. They had never been ten minutes late leaving class. Some feared they had been kidnapped. The teachers also went looking for them. When they found the dreamseller in the garden, they were impressed by how quiet the children were, especially at that time of day. They saw the ragged man and realized that the person stirring up the school was the same stranger who was inciting the city.
Then he told the children, “A life without dreams is a seed without soil, a plant without nourishment. Dreams don’t determine the kind of tree you’ll be, but they give you strength to understand there’s no growth without storms, times of difficulty and misunderstanding. Play more, smile more, imagine more. Cover yourselves in the dirt of your dreams. Without dirt, a seed can’t germinate.” And he scooped up some of the clay beside him and smeared it on his face.
Amazed, several of the children also stuck their hands in the clay and dirtied their faces. Some stained their clothes. They would never forget that day, even when they were old. However, when their parents arrived and saw their children dirty and being taught by a ratty-looking stranger, they were horrified. “Get that maniac away from our children!” some said.
“We pay a fortune in tuition and the school doesn’t offer the least bit of security. It’s an outrage!” others shouted.
They called security, who roughly tossed the dreamseller out of the school in front of the children. Juliana, a nine-year-old with the most dirt on her face, ran to him and shouted, “Stop, stop!”
Surprised, the guards stopped. Juliana handed the Dreamseller a flower and said, “I’d like to be a grapevine.”
“Why, my child?”
“It’s not pretty or strong like you. But anyone can reach its fruit.”
“You will be a great seller of dreams,” the dreamseller said.
Some of the teachers asked the security guards to go easy on the man. As he left, some applauded. Turning to them, he said:
“A society that encourages those who punish over those who educate will always be sick. I would not bow to the famous or the great leaders of our society, but I bow down to the educators.”
And he bowed before the open-mouthed teachers.
It was not easy to accompany that mysterious man. He spoke in places where you were supposed to keep quiet, danced in places where you were supposed to sit still. He was unpredictable. Sometimes he would distance himself from his disciples to avoid involving them in the tumult he caused.
One of the things that most disheartened him was how unhappy people seemed to be in the digital age, something unforeseen by Freud. He would often say:
“We are morbid, weary and perpetually discontent. Yet the entertainment industry is at its peak, and the sale of depression medication has gone through the roof. Doesn’t that bother you, ladies and gentlemen?”
People did seem troubled. Some by his words, others by the man himself.
“We watch sitcoms every night, but where are our smiles the next morning? We have pleasures the Greeks never dreamed of, but where is the enduring joy? And the patience?”
The dreamseller didn’t worry about whether he was lauded or ridiculed. He was concerned only with being faithful to what he believed. To him, life was far too short to be lived in a false, futile, mediocre way. One of the manifestations of mediocrity that he fought against most fiercely was the cult of celebrity.
“Those who live outside the media spotlight, the anonymous toilers who struggle to survive, the health professionals who save lives, the assembly line workers, the trash collectors, those are the true stars in society. But just as it trivializes these heroes, the system handpicks its celebrities. A society that promotes celebrities is emotionally stunted and sick.”
To some, the dreamseller was the craziest of crazies. To others, a thinker of unprecedented daring. And some saw him as a man who had been great and fallen from his throne. To me, he was stimulating, extraordinary, controversial. His speeches cut like razors, his ideas were enthralling. He was both loved and hated like no other.
I had been a prideful intellectual and egotistical professor of sociology who always felt the need to be praised and to control my students. For six months, I had been following this man with the long, unruly hair and untrimmed beard, this man who wore clothes so wrinkled and torn, you’d never even find them at a secondhand store.
But this man was so captivating that groups of teenagers would wake up at sunrise on Saturdays and Sundays to seek him out. They wanted to find out what kind of uproar he and his disciples would get into. Some of his disciples seemed so crazy that their illnesses couldn’t even be found in psychology textbooks. And, to be honest, there were times when I felt like running away and abandoning our group. But something about his mission fascinated me.
The dreamseller wasn’t balanced like a Christian monk, serene like a Buddhist monk, and he was much less deliberate than a philosopher from Greece’s Golden Age. Sometimes he led us to calm waters, other times into the eye of the storm. When people praised him, he might say, “Careful, I’m not normal. Some think I’m mentally ill. Following me is risky.”
He could spend hours talking to a blind man and say that of the two, the blind man could see more than he. Young people wanted to discuss their crises and passions. He might interrupt a brilliant speech and abruptly leave a crowd if he spotted an elderly man having trouble walking. He would accompany his halting steps for blocks on end and listen with delight to the conversation.
I asked myself what kind of man was this who expended energy on things we considered irrelevant. He was capable of creating poetry from a glass of water and drinking it in a way we never did. Raising the glass, he said:
“O, water that quenches my thirst, one day I will disintegrate in a tomb, and you, in a thousand particles, will return to the bed of the sea. But you will weep with longing for humanity. Released, you will evaporate, travel to distant places and, like tears, once again fall to refresh other people.”
Free of the neurotic need for power, he did not worry about his image. He lived without glamour, ostentation or self-promotion. When we walked with him, the hundred billion neurons that make up our brains were in a constant state of alert. Living with this man meant laying bare our foolishness, revealing our madness.
This man rescued me when I was on the verge of suicide. Afterward, he might have gone on his way and I mine, perhaps never to meet again. But what he said to keep me from killing myself floored me. For the very first time, I bowed before another man’s wisdom. I was ready to end my life, to punctuate my existence with a period when he made me a disturbing offer:
“I want to sell you a comma.”
“A comma?” I asked.
“Yes, a comma, so you can pause, then go on writing your life, for a man without a comma is a man without a history.”
That was the moment I realized I had used periods instead of commas throughout my life. If someone frustrated me, I would eliminate him, putting a period to our relationship. Someone injured me? I would erase him. If I encountered an obstacle? I would change directions. If my plan had problems? I would replace it. If I suffered a loss? I would turn my back.
As a professor, I learned from the books of others but didn’t know how to write the book of my existence. I considered myself an angel and those who frustrated me, demons, without ever acknowledging that I had been the one who alienated my wife, my only child, my friends and my students.
Whoever eliminates everyone around him will one day decide to eliminate himself. And that day had arrived. But luckily, I had found the dreamseller and come to understand that frustrations, disappointments, betrayals, abuse and conflict are all part of life. And commas are essential.
I lived comfortably in my small apartment on a professor’s meager salary. Then I, a socialist who had always criticized the bourgeoisie and sang the praises of society’s poor, came to experience the pain of poverty in my own life.
I became a follower of a seller of ideas who had nothing. Marx, a theoretical thinker who never knew what it meant to be a proletarian, would have been perplexed by this man. When I began following the dreamseller, I realized Marx was a hypocrite who defended something he didn’t know. Therefore I left behind the frontiers of theory to become a wanderer, a small seller of commas to help people free their minds, rewrite their history and develop critical thinking.
Being mocked, jeered, branded a lunatic, an impostor—these were the smallest risks in joining the group. The worst? Being beaten, arrested, labeled a rioter, kidnapper and a terrorist. Selling dreams in a society that has stopped dreaming came at a very high cost.
But nothing was more exciting. Those who joined our group knew nothing of boredom, anguish or depression. We did, however, run unforeseeable risks.