June 02, 2005

AN OLD MAN IN A JEEPNEY - Chapter 5 of "The Night of Angels"

We must heal the world by reawakening from the seemingly discordant society in which we live in today; a society where violence reign and evil pervades. Where men are putting others down more often than the sun rises and sets in, where stealing becomes the norm rather than the exception, and where the temptation of the flesh becomes a religion deified and glorified by many who become slaves to the dictates of lust.

Nowadays, it is never a surprise anymore to find men preaching morality and uprightness in the eyes of many and yet when they vanish from public view, they are the very evil that they preach against, that in their more private worlds, they would steal without restraint or fornicate incessantly.

At a glance, nothing seems to be wrong with our world today. It is still revolving and despite the violence in some parts of the world, people go about their task as expected. But when we examine it closer, the world we live in today is so stained with the evil that men do--evils that they do in their everyday deeds. Men fight one another as easily even upon very insignificant reasons, to have prejudice and contempt mostly for reason of differences in race and creed. Many steal routinely merely by reason of vanity and pride. We see so much of our brothers suffering in helpless condition and many would not even lift a finger to provide assistance. The Good Samaritan in us had vanished. Our popular culture nowadays promotes violence and irresponsible sex and rebellion in the youth, as we see it all too often in movies and literatures and television--sex, drugs and violence as a popular phrase states.

In our daily dealings--as we read through the papers and listen to the news broadcast--we encounter the government official who does not move without the bribe money, the policeman who stops the jeepney drivers in order to extort money, the bank accountant who ran away with embezzled money, the street thug who pickpockets in sidewalks, the politicians with their unexplained wealth, the vendor of pornographic materials, the pimps in night streets, and the killers for hire. Anywhere in the world, evil had seemed to have seep in into the deep recesses of our minds and hearts that somehow we accept many of them as mere ordinary occurrences.

This must not be the case. If in fact humanity has the greatest faith in the Creator, following so adeptly His teachings and judgments, the occurrence of evil in our world would not have been as prevalent. At least not in the scale or extent that they are happening now. This is the contradiction of our humanity, the incongruity of the world we live in. Churches and Mosques abound. New religion or sect sprouts here, there and everywhere that for every mile you travel there is always a chapel or a mosque somewhere. Yet, evil still pervades nowadays. Every move we make, we see a cross or a crescent and yet we often forget the edicts of God. This is an era of the strongest faith and yet at the same time it is an era of false faith. Christianity had never been as widespread. Islam gains more and more converts to its fold. And yet, the world is full of men living lives for themselves merely; of men who commit acts so wrongly in order to further their own interest.

In relation to the contradiction of faith today, let me tell you a story.

When I was in college many years ago, I had been active in the school publication that I often go home a little bit late in the evening to complete works in the intricate production of a magazine issue. In one of those nights that I stayed late in school, I decided to proceed home earlier than planned when my stomach started to grumble from starvation. I usually stayed further but that particular night, but I ran out of pocket money to buy me some snacks. So I had to rush home. With merely coins in my pocket, I took a passenger jeepney instead of the tricycle. As usual, I had to wait for the jeepney to be full of passengers before it moves to depart from the station and I could feel my starvation getting more and more urgent as each minute pass, and the wait became an eternity. I could almost hear my stomach grumbling. The trembling movement of the jeepney (as it prepared its engine to depart) gave my tired body and empty stomach a sort of therapeutic message that somehow my discomfort was lessened. Still, the hunger was ever present and as the minutes grew on, my stomach kept complaining that in fact the grumbling of my stomach had become audible already that I had become unusually mindful of the man sitting beside me.

My tiredness drew my head into a stoop and while I was drooping, I saw a pair of slippers worn by a man sitting just in front of me. The pair of slippers caught my attention and interest for it was unlike any other pair of slippers. Each slipper was of different color and of different sizes. My thought started to process the sight of the unpaired slippers. Maybe I was already hallucinating due to my hunger and tiredness as I momentarily mistrusted my sense of sight. No one wears unpaired slippers in a public place. It was not good to look at and embarrassing to say the least. It was somehow funny I thought.

Who would ever wear unpaired slippers in a public place? Nobody. Nobody except a beggar or a mentally incapacitated person would wear such incongruence in his or her body. So I investigated further to seek explanation as to the incidence of an unpaired slippers. I looked upward slowly to gain cognizance of the man who wore the unpaired slippers. It was a man indeed, an old man at that. He was too old that in fact I did not mind so much the tattered clothes he wore on his body. But there was one contradiction in my mind. Would a beggar ride a jeepney? If there was one, I had not expected that to happen. I have seen beggars before and I know their general actuations. They usually walk with walking canes in one hand and a rusting can on the other. They usually have with them a decrepit pouch bags full of clunking coins of different denomination. They would walk the streets as if they have no destination for it was never easy to imagine a sort of destination for men so wanting in possessions. Do they have their own homes? Do they have family relations?

A beggar riding a jeepney or any public transport is a beggar that I have not met before. Could he be a beggar, after all? Maybe and maybe not; or maybe he was an insane man. But where would he go? An insane man would have lack destination also; in fact, the more that they should have lacked destination. They would have also lacked the motive to ride a jeepney.

As I looked gradually upward, my sight witnessed the face of an old man with sadness on its eyes or more particularly the face of a man with hunger written in capital letters. My mind was a little bit disturbed and began wandering into thoughts that needed in-depth analysis and deeper judgment. There was in fact a sort of awakening for me when I realized that one could actually tell how hungry a man is by just looking at his eyes. Maybe the traces of wrinkles beneath the eyes could signal the restlessness brought forth by an empty stomach. Or perhaps the clouds in the pupils would tell the tale of a consuming starvation. Or maybe a tint of held-back tears in the eye could also tell you that or a drooping face. I was not so certain now how suddenly a man’s deep hunger exploded in my mind and took a grasp of my time and interest. What was my business after all about somebody else’s hunger?

The old man in unpaired slippers and tattered clothes was very hungry indeed. If I was tired and hungry at that time, I was in fact luckier. At least I have two good pairs of shoes on. At least somehow, a meal is waiting for me on the table the minute I arrive home.

But for that old man in a jeepney, I could not tell for certain if a meal would be able to heal his hunger for that night. Consequently, I felt so much pity for the old man that my stomach refrained from grumbling. It must have been the feeling of relief that one would feel whenever one suddenly realizes that someone was more unfortunate, at least.

Despite of it all, there was some kind of disturbance in my mind. A disturbance not anymore brought about by the weakness of my body, but the concern I felt for the old man--the sight of a hungry man in unpaired slippers. How often do we see some old man with unpaired slippers and a drooping hungry face? Are they facts of life we accept or do we repel them and recognize them as an abnormality of society? What happened to the words and messages of the priests, of the preachers, and of the imams? How could we ever accept the reality of our shielded life if some of us seem to have no destination and no assured food on the table? But then, am I my brother’s keeper? Would I take this man with me and share my meal or would I go against my instinct and turn away?

For one reason or another, I just turned away from the old man. I felt a certain embarrassment in walking side by side with an old man in tattered clothes and the more if I have to clutch him home to share my meal. It is the sort of discomfort we feel every time we pass a beggar in the street. We would like to fish for a coin or two and pass it to the beggar’s hand but somehow we are self-conscious of such act that we just go forward without giving the alms, as if giving alms is a wrong thing to do.

I was a lesser man then and perhaps even now. I had some money to spare so I just paid a fare for two and pointed out to the jeepney driver that the old man would not have to pay his fare anymore and proceeded home to the meal waiting for me. I could share some coins for the old man I thought, for after all it was Christmas season. In fact, as I remember it quite well, it was Christmas Eve when I witnessed the starvation of the old man in unpaired slippers, a time where many would have fine and abundant food on their table and the air would be full of the sound of bells ringing, lights flicking, carols abound, Christmas trees decorated, parties celebrated and other merriment happening. My instinct would have led me to bring the old man home to share a meal, but the lesser man in me prevailed.

Somehow, in times like that, to feel sympathy for another man’s plight of desperation is already enough to exorcise ourselves of the contradiction of man’s faith today, when it seems that there is nothing more to give but sympathy and consolation. “What good does it do a man to have faith and yet has no works?”

The old man in a jeepney had opened something in me that was hidden somewhere inside the recesses of my person. Of how I complain so much about the many frustrations in my life when I just saw a hungry man whose destination is of no certainty? Would he have any family relations to go? If so, why would they allow this relative to befool his person by wearing tattered clothes and unpaired slippers in public?

This is the world we live in today; a world full of contradiction. Where many preach sharing and goodness and the overwhelming mercy of God, to celebrate so grandly their faith and yet their faith is of no meaning to others but merely to themselves. No one is his brother’s keeper anymore. Why would I waste my wealth on that old man? Am I Abel? Or am I Cain? Am I my brother’s keeper? And usually we even castigate them. Why don’t he work just as I do? But at the same time fail to ask questions like: “Have the society been fair to him as it was to me?” “ Is he an insane man or a man without limbs, or a man abused?”

Have we always looked away from the other side of the coin?

Are we all our brothers’ keeper?

Does faith alone can save me?

Let us ask the Creator these questions one by one and look for the answer in our hearts.

[1] Adapted from biblical verses.