Three encounters, one question.
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Encounter one. I came across an old woman once, while I was out running an errand for work. She and I happened to leave the same place together, then rode together in a tricycle on the way out. Since the bill I had was enough for both of our fares, I paid for both of us. She looked surprised and thanked me for the gesture, but continued to stare at me intently, as if trying to place whether she knew who I was.
When we reached the stop, we both transferred onto a jeepney. That time, she insisted she be the one to pay the fare for both of us, an offer I initially resisted but eventually agreed to. The jeep was full of passengers and we were seated right across each other, and as we sat in silence I could tell she was still carefully studying my face.
A few moments later, she began talking to me. At first our conversation was just about work and the weather, but after a short while the topic alighted onto family. She shared that her two children were already abroad, working and raising their own families there. The next thing I knew, this total stranger in front of me was showing me pictures in her phone, of her vacationing with her daughter abroad, of her son and daughter, and of the time they vacationed here in the country many years back. As she talked about her children’s careers and life paths, the pride was evident on her voice—Look now, here, these are my children and I’ve raised them lovingly, and they’ve grown to be good people living full lives and I couldn’t be prouder. But I could also tell that as she was telling those stories, a tinge of sadness shone in her eyes.
I continued to listen to her stories, but as she talked, a part of my mind drifted back to the place where we both were before we got together in the same vehicles. It was a mental health care center. I was there to facilitate students’ internship; she, to have a prescription for her meds renewed.
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What are we to make of this life? There is so much sadness walking around. Aloneness is inherent in the human condition, loneliness often a companion we’re left to befriend. People leave all the time, and we cannot stop them from doing so; they have their own lives to live, separate from us. Even if once before, their very survival depended on our care, oh how easy it is still, for them to forget. For us to forget.
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Encounter two. I happened to come across a middle-aged woman once, while I was on my way to work one afternoon. We were in the same jeep together, as were a few other passengers (I don’t know what it is with the daily commute that has me bumping into stuff like this). This woman was talking animatedly to another passenger, one I assumed was her friend. I had my earphones on so I wasn’t really hearing what she was talking about, but it was clear to me that the passenger she was talking to wasn’t into the conversation that much. The passenger was kind enough to nod occasionally to what she was saying, but never really engaged in the conversation.
When the passenger eventually got off the jeep, the woman finally fell silent. Then to my surprise, she started talking again—to no one in particular, really, but in such a way that everyone in the vehicle can hear her. I lowered the volume of the music I was listening to so I could hear what the woman was talking so passionately (and so loudly) about.
From what I could gather, she was angry. More than angry, actually; she was livid (or whatever synonym of angry is the most intense). She talked about working very hard overseas for so many years, so she could provide for her husband and children back here, only to find out recently that her husband had been having an affair all these years, and even had the other woman living in the very house she put up with her hard-earned money. The pain from the betrayal she experienced was evident in her voice, and it was understandable how she could just explode like that even amidst strangers. The verbal outpour really was a mechanism of coping, an emotional catharsis that had to happen one way or another. And we, the passengers who were with her at that time, were the absorbers of that emotional release.
Wow, I thought to myself. How many more of us have suffered, are suffering, or will suffer pains like such in this lifetime?
It feels like a tragedy, sometimes. Other times, it feels like a joke.
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What are we to make of this life? There is so much hurt walking around. Pain is inherent in the human condition, grief often a companion we’re left to befriend. People hurt people all the time, and we cannot stop them from doing so; they have to protect their own hearts, and sometimes it means breaking ours.
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Encounter three. I once happened to come across a baby, cuddled by its mother. I remember being drawn to gaze at it. How untainted, how bright-eyed, how new to the world it is. When it looks at me, I smile at it, and instinctively, amazingly, it smiles back. It trusts everyone, it trusts the world. The first stance it takes is that of hope.
This baby will eventually grow up to tell its own stories, and over the course of its life it will hear other people’s stories too. It will experience hurt and betrayal and all sorts of pain, and maybe someday it too will be the cause of other people’s hurt and experience of betrayal and all sorts of pain. It’s a blank page ahead, but we all know the themes of the story that’ll be written will be similar with those of the rest of us.
We know this, because that baby was once us.
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What, then, are we to make of this life? We were born with hope and trust as our first instincts; we had no choice—we had to hope and trust that others will take care of us. We would not have survived otherwise. But we each grow to temper our sense of hope and trust, because the world we come to know is full of pain and betrayal. We learn that to hope incessantly and to trust fully in this kind of world can not only be impractical; it can be devastating. And so we each develop our own ways of coping. Some of us build walls and shut off entirely from the world to avoid pain, while some of us cling to others all the more to counter the sense of isolation. Some of us try to make sense of our suffering, while others cease trying to make sense of anything anymore.
It seems then that the question of what we are to make of this life—in other words, what the point of life is—has no one answer. Maybe it’s different for each person. All I know is every single one of us is just trying to live.
The thing is, while we are constantly aware of our own struggle to survive and find happiness, we tend to forget that every single person around us—even those who inconvenience us or hurt us in any way—are also just trying to live their own lives and find their own happiness. All we can readily see are the shells of these people we encounter, but as with ourselves, they too have pains and struggles at their core.
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It will forever be a marvel to me, how there can be so much in this world—so many stories, so many pains, occasional miracles—and yet there is so little of it that we can know, most of it fit to be reduced only to moments, brief encounters with our fellow beings.
This all reminds me of a short video clip I once saw about the word “sonder,” which creator John Koenig assigned to mean “the realization that everyone has a story.” I’ll leave you with this clip, with the hope that every encounter you have—be it with friend or stranger—becomes a window through which you can see what it means to live, and learn also to let live.
I hope it bring you closer, too, to finally answering that age-old question: What, then, are we to make of this life? ♠
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