I've survived another Atlantic crossing . . . we docked in Funchal four days ago, and Lisbon two days after that. It feels good to be back to the Iberian penninsula, although I didn't expect to be back so soon.
I was eating lunch in the mess with my new roommate (Cezar, a Polish-Swedish trombone player) when an older man we didn't recognize came up to us. He asked where we were from, and then returned later with two little pamphlets in our respective languages. "Read, and they will explain you why so many bad things happen to people." It was of course a short collection of musings and bible verses -- although they were from both testaments, which was unusual. The guys from the seafarer's mission usually stick to the new testament, it's a little more upbeat and sailors generally need to hear the good news first.
We were polite and took the booklets -- he was a nice man, and seemed genuine in his beliefs, but I couldn't help but think about his chioce of words. "Explain (to) you why so many bad things happen to people." That's a fairly dismal way to put it . . . from a philosophical standpoint, how can the answer to that question be anything useful? It speaks of a system that has already decided that life is shit before it even happens. That's not how I want to live . . . and how do we know which things are bad and which are good, anyway? I thought of telling him a story from Stephen Mitchell's commentary on the Tao te Ching, but English wasn't his first language and missionaries are not usually very interested in hearing what other people have to say anyway.
The story goes like this:
There was a young farmer who was very poor. He had no wife or children, and only one horse to work his entire farm. One day the horse ran away and he was left with nothing. All the villagers came and said, "Oh, how terrible! What a tragedy!" except for his elderly father, who just smiled. Later he asked his father, "Why do you stay so quiet, father?"
"Because maybe this is not a tragedy. Maybe this is the best of fortunes!"
The farmer shrugged. His father was getting old; he would be patient with him and his foolishness.
A few months later, the horse came back. It had found a wild mate of good stock, and soon the farmer had a whole stable full of excellent horses. He became very rich breeding them and soon had a large estate, a beautiful wife, and a handsome son. All of the villagers said, "Oh, what luck!" except for his father. One day the farmer asked him, "Why are you so quiet, father?"
"Because maybe this is not good luck. Maybe this is the most terrible of fortunes."
The farmer was puzzled, but he loved his father and so he smiled and went about his business.
The farmer's son loved to ride the many horses they had and was an excellent horseman. One day he slipped and fell, breaking his pelvis and receiving other terrible injuries. The villagers gathered around his sick-bed, consoling the farmer and his wife. "Oh, how terrible!" But again the farmer's father said nothing. He just smiled to himself in his big chair in the corner.
"Father, how can you be happy when your grandson is so injured?"
"Because maybe this is not misfortune. Maybe this is the best of luck!"
The farmer was angry, but his grief kept him from fighting with his father.
The son healed slowly, but he had acquired a limp and could not ride any more. The farmer and his wife did not care; they were happy that he was alive. A year later, the barbarians invaded from the North. All able bodied young men were called up to fight in the army; all of the young men from the village were taken except for the farmer's son, who was not fit to fight in the war. The battle was fierce, and nine tenths of the village's young men were killed. The villagers told the farmer, "You are lucky your son could not go!"
But his father sat in the corner, silent.
I think you can see the point of the story.
In related news, we will celebrate Easter this cruise, and at the weekly entertainment meeting the cruise director introduced the variety of religious personnel that Crystal has brought on board to cater to the guests' spiritual needs. Usually we have a Catholic priest, but in Lisbon we added a Protestant Minister and a Jewish Rabbi (Passover is coming up as well). I realized as we were leaving that this is the first time in my life when I might actually witness a Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into a bar . . .