ONE interesting thing about Facebook, the Internet social network, is that every so often people would post profound and thought-provoking sayings. It is a boon for me for they would wake up the muse in me and send me excitedly to my computer. This week was a good one from my friend Ritchie. It read: “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old”. I don’t quite agree with the first sentence but I love the last one.
Since time immemorial, one of the frailties of man has been his wariness of old age. He is aware that ‘old age’ will inevitably bring along with him a companion, the ‘grim reaper’. So, desperately he persists in the futile search for the ‘fountain of eternal youth’.
In ancient time, the young prince Ying Zheng of the house of Qin through cunning alliances, military excellence and sheer bloody ruthlessness defeated the other six kingdoms during the Warring States Period and made himself lord and master in all the lands, which he called China. He gave himself the grand title of Huang Di. One version of the story says that the word ‘Huang’ meant ‘great’, while the word ‘Di’ referred to the Supreme God in Heaven, creator of the world. By joining these two words for the first time, he created a title befitting his feat of uniting the seemingly endless Chinese realm. He was known as Shi Huang Di, which could be translated as ‘the first or commencing great emperor’.
Though he was at the zenith of his triumph and all his enemies lay vanquished and humbled beneath him, Shi Huang Di knew that he still had one formidable adversary left — ‘Death’. So he ordered alchemists, physicians and sorcerers to try to come up with the ‘elixir of immortality’. Of course, it was all to no avail. Then he sent a team of young men and women to scour the vast country to search for the ‘fountain of eternal youth’. They went as far as an island off the eastern coast of China and still they could not fulfil their quest. Knowing that to return home empty-handed would mean certain death, they elected to stay on the island and founded a country. As legend has it, the island was Japan.
Shi Huang Di found out, as indeed all men through the millennia have discovered, that there is not much we can do to lengthen our time on earth. That is in the hands of God. The emperor died at the age of 58.
However, while there is not too much we can do about the quantity of our life, there is a lot we can do about the quality of our life. Hence, the posting by my friend Ritchie — “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old” — is such a comforting thought. As someone once said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away”.
The problem however is that we tend to have difficulty recognising those breathtaking moments. As one person commented in response to this inspirational statement, “I disagree with the quote. If the only thing that measures a life is what ‘took the breath away’, many people would have nothing to measure. The only things that have taken my breath away were glacading down Mt Whitney with a 60- pound pack; jumping off Havasupai Falls (90-foot waterfall); watching my daughter being delivered by C-Section; and walking onto the observation deck of the Empire State Building to experience 50 mile per hour winds at 32 degrees. My life will be measured by so much more than that.”
Poor fellow, he is suffering from what my philosophy lecturer used to say ‘the Big Bang syndrome’. Yes, we all tend to be similarly afflicted. We have eyes only for the big and spectacular events and not appreciate the small and everyday things which, if seen with a different eye and attitude, can be just as impressive.
The 17th century saw constant battles between the warlords of Japan. A story is told about shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who, grateful for the assistance of an English captain (he was able to help sway the battle the shogun’s way using his gunship), invited the man to the rampart of his castle one evening, saying that he wanted to give the captain a gift.
The sun was just setting and the servants laid out the mat and proceeded to perform the elaborate teamaking ceremony. The tea was then served with great deference.
The sea was set ablaze by the setting sun, casting a golden sheen on the face of everyone. The captain was oblivious to all that, all he could think of were the gold and silver which he hoped the shogun would give him.
The shogun with the tea cup in his hand stood there quietly gazing at the sea and the sky. The captain with the tea cup in his hand stood there impatiently waiting for his gift. Eventually, he could not contain himself any longer and was about to do the crass thing by asking his host about his gift when the shogun, with a tear running down his cheek, said, “Captain, I give you the sunset.” Just then the sun sunk into the sea and the afterglow lit up the evening sky with a glorious hue. It was a magic moment.
The sun sets everyday but ‘magic moments’ exist not just then. Magic moments are all around, in many forms and can be seen in many things. Recently, I was diving in Sipadan, Sabah. As usual, most divers going there long to have close encounters with the thousands of barracudas, the bigeye trevallies and giant bumphead parrot fish. In one of our dives, we didn’t get a glimpse of these schools. Some of the shallow-minded (no pun intended) complained that there was nothing to see. As they say in Hokkien ‘boh meek kia khua’. Really? My friend John, an underwater photographer, surfaced from the dive grinning from ear to ear. Later in the evening when he showed us his photos, we knew why. There were many photos of beautiful, exquisite and colourful small critters. These were taken during the same ‘boh meek kia khua’ dive!
There is a popular self help book entitled ‘Don’t sweat the small things’. I know I am taking it out of context but I believe we should say the opposite, “Do sweat the small things.” The small things can be magic in themselves.
Two years ago I was asked if I would like to write this weekly column. I took time to think over it. It is no mean task, having to come up with an article every week and hoping not to make too much of a fool of myself to the world. Having read too many of the ‘you can do it’ books, I foolhardily said ‘yes’. Then I panicked. What if the computer screen remains blank despite cups and cups of coffee? Then it happened. The constant deadline which hovers like the sword of Damocles forces me to see beauty and meaning in things and events all around me. I don’t know about me ‘never growing old.’ But I do feel that I have got my childlike curiosity back. It reminds me of my daughter when she was five. Her favourite word was ‘Why?’
Like the great emperor Shi Huang Di, we will never find the fountain of eternal youth and we can never arrest the march of time. However, it is within our reach to make our lives beautiful. Each moment of our life is a passing moment — fleeting and ephemeral. Value all of them. If we open our eyes, our ears, our minds and our hearts, we can make them magic moments — moments that take our breath away.
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