By Bruce Northam

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DON’T PREDICT THE FUTURE, INVENT IT ~

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

Why peer through the keyhole when your hand rests on the doorknob?

Mr. Chen (left) — unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, China

Mr. Chen (left) — unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, China

I was backpacking in the newly “opened” China in 1987 when Chen, a multilingual restaurateur and the unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, entered my life. He had a kindly way with backpackers, and one afternoon he invited me to join him on a 70-mile journey in a rickety delivery truck across southeast China’s surreal limestone-peak landscape.

 

En route, we passed a seemingly ancient man and his goat. They were walking on the roadside in the opposite direction. Barefoot, the man plodded along the rough, hot road, two immense bags of rice suspended on a long, flexible pole across his back.

 

We passed him without a word, but upon returning to Yangzhou several hours later, we found him again—still plodding along. I suggested to Chen that we offer him a lift. After we pulled over, the old man and Chen had a brief exchange. Then Chen got back behind the wheel, and we drove off, leaving the man in the road. Puzzled, I asked Chen to translate their conversation. He explained that the man wasn’t due to arrive in Yangzhou until the following day. If he were to show up in advance, he wouldn’t know what to do with the extra time.

 

“You see, my friend,” said Chen, “Not all of us are in a hurry.”

 

I asked him to turn back, as I wanted to ask the old man a few things. Chen parked, and I hopped out. The old man stopped, balancing on his walking stick, and grinned. We pondered each other, beings from opposite sides of the planet—different planets really, worlds and ways apart.

 

Chen translated my questions.

 

“What’s the most important thing in your life?” I asked.

 

The old man looked to his left and made a peculiar honking call for his straying goat. Was the goat the most important thing? When the animal arrived at his side, the man looked at Chen and spoke slowly.

 

Chen interpreted, “He said that if you can’t help people, don’t harm them.”

 

“Why are people hurtful?” I asked.

 

I didn’t look at Chen as he spoke but rather stared into the old man’s eyes. He was human art, more serene than a drowsy cat.

 

“If you decline to accept someone’s abuse, then it still belongs to them,” he replied.

 

“Why do we quarrel?” I asked.

 

“The rise of a man’s mind from his scrotum to his skull can be a long haul.” We all burst into laughter. The goat bleated. “Ready?” Chen asked.

 

The old man and I shook hands and waved goodbye. The truck rolled away.

 

Today, I often recall the man’s deeply wrinkled face, and I know that the infuriating fixtures of modern life—traffic jams, rude people, the arrogance of ego—are only options. His words remain a permanent, benevolent echo.

 

I departed Yangzhou a month later. Chen walked with me to the bus stop. After mutual pats on the back, I told him how much his companionship meant to me, and that the old man’s words were unforgettable. I thanked him for those too.

 

“Use those words to end a book,” Chen said.

 

“Come on, Chen,” I replied. “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I get published?”

 

“The same age you’ll be if you don’t,” he winked.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

…Well, two decades and several books later, I received a letter from Chen that delivered a shock. He confessed—in that letter—that he hadn’t actually translated the old man’s words. Everything I’d learned that day had actually been Chen’s sage advice.

 

But, I got the best of Chen, and started this book with him…