The wise once said life is traveling through the desert – the very kind that is full of thorns and thistles. Countless times I lost in the desert, and countless times pains made me wonder: “what was the meaning of everything?” Following the same path as the Philip, the protagonist in Of Human Bondage, I found the answer.
The remaining sunlight at dusk receded slowly and relentlessly, leaving dark clouds bare on the pale sky. Gloominess accumulated under the heavy clouds. Outside, out of dead silence, a thunder flashed across the sky, lighting up the entire room. Raining started. Sitting in the coffee house and surrounded by the Joe Hisaishi’s peaceful tunes and Kapeng Barako’s mild odor, I was reading Of Human Bondage again. This is what I enjoyed to do. Every time I felt lost, I would sit here, hold the ragged book, read the paragraphs that once enlightened me, and ruminated on things happened recently alone for hours. I looked outside, as another thunder flashed. Blurred windows insulated people from the rest of the world. Rancorous sounds grew massive, reminding me of those boisterous falling day and those fateful calls from Dad years ago. – “I’m sorry, son. My business failed. Now we don’t have money for you to study aboard.” – “Again!? But I’ve just switched to the international division! What should I do?” So astonished was I by this shocking news. I began to stutter. – “Give me some time. We’ll figure this out. I promise.”
I hung up, speechlessly and furiously. Slamming the door with all my strength, I roamed out heart-broken. The storm was coming. Passer-by fastened their pace, trying to escape the unstoppable storm, all except me. “When will you earn the money? When can you make everything right? You failed again and again! I can’t afford the overseas study. I can’t be a normal international-student like them. I can’t…” The mad voice in my head finally broke out, roaring and raging. Cold droplets stroke my face, reminding me of what cruel absurdness it was for one trapped in the nightmare of poverty dare to dream of study-aboard. Poverty, yes, I had been stuck in poverty far too long, so had been the entire family. Always haunting me were those minutes and seconds of watching grandparents sitting inside piles of foul trashes picking up useful ones little by little to exchange for coins: “Dear boy, remember, remember, never be a trailblazer,” Grandpa did his routine slowly and seriously, “If your Dad didn’t come to Shenzhen for his start-up, he wouldn’t lose anything. Back then life was safe and cozy.”
“A failure of a start-up is common. What if he succeeded twelve years ago?” I retorted, “Look at those ambitious young men who came here seeking for chance after Reform and Opening-up. All my friends’ families are wealthy because of…”“But he didn’t.” He interrupted, firmly and bitterly. Slightly irritated, I wanted to defend Dad—defend a yearning, in fact, the same one which led Dad here years ago, which urged me to be brave, to do things that others don’t dare to do.
Yet, I can’t. Dad had committed a crime that was too great to be defended. Everything had fallen apart because his failure twelve years ago. The family was dragged down to poverty. Uncles and Aunts lost millions in helping him. Eighty-year-old grandparents went out scavenging to compensate for the dire situation when five years ago his salaries can’t even make up monthly housing rent. I can never forget those pleading words grandpa said to the doctor to turn down a 10-dollar-per-day therapy for grandma who had been lying in bed in pain for weeks only because of our penniless home. All the ambition of idealism, all the promise of familial love, all the comforting, reassuring words vanished in face of the reality, in front of me. How can those things be so easily meaningless? I wondered. Sometimes, out of piercing pain, a strange sense of curiosity grew. It carried me away from these hardships, to a distant place where time stopped for some instants, and I saw things, things I don’t understand. I saw waves of different kinds of emotions past through people, happy or sad, pleasant or agonizing, pushing people moving forward, regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor, successful or unsuccessful. I saw sunshine and storm, appearing in a random matter, over and over, as all things appear to be. I saw people, like identical and non-stop machines, living and thriving, as all other creatures seem to do. Then I saw myself, standing there, deluged by the waves of emotions and storms, appearing nothing different from other people, from other creatures. I was confused. Why did emotions exist? Why did I exist? Why did everything exist?
At these moment, watching grandpa’s fatigued eyes, I can understand nothing but pain and inferiority. They overwhelmed me, engulfed my strength, and left only a timid voice, feebly and desperately yelling: “Why does it have to be us to endure this all? Why does it have to be me to stuck here and watch grandpa picking dirty garbage while every friend of mine is shopping, traveling and enjoying every easiness of happy life?!” Tears welled up in my eyes. I looked down, avoiding grandpa and the foul trash behind him. “Suffering builds a man.” Grandpa softly calmed me so. “No, suffering is just suffering,” I whispered to myself. Warm drops touched my cheeks. I looked up and realized I was soaked completely.
No more hiding, raucous storm indulged its excessive pleasure with earsplitting thunders and incessant raindrops. Violent downpour mixing with sore memories hit me again and again. Crowded in front of the blurred sight were the images of Dad’s stiff silhouette against glares of screen day by day, of Mom’s gaunt contour bustling alone into midnight, and of grandparents’ thin figures climbing into big dumpsters looking for valuables. Old gashes of my heart ripped out again. “Why am I here? Why is all these nefarious pain?” I kept questioning myself so that I could find a justified reason to quit, to run away from them. But I can’t. I can’t find any answers. The more I questioned myself, the more I find the questions meaningless. All those mottos that told me to hold on to myself, to trust myself, that I once believed with all my heart, now felt only nothingness. I doubted them and doubted myself. For a moment, everything lost its meaning to me. For a moment, I can feel nothing but the boisterous storm, the cold hit on my face, and the pain in my heart. This is not the first time I was stuck in wholehearted desperation. And I knew too well this will not be the last time. It was a loop played again and again as Dad failed again and again. Soon the storm would stop and life went on until the next storm. I walked down the street mechanically. Raindrops fell down and splashed translucent crystal out of the muddy puddle. I saw people passing me by, silently. They hide themselves under big and black umbrellas, which allowed me to see only part of their face. How can they be so different, I wonder. Some of them were laughing, dressing in the unfitted white Korean-style shirt, talking to friends about another latest idols they chased. Some looked tired, futile and unfocused eyes filled with vulgarities and hideousness, rough reddish-brown skin showed how hard life can be in this unknown corner of the city. Some of them were old, lurching slowly toward some destination, skinny body so ill-suited to the ferocious storm. Some were young, proudly remaining fully unprotected to the beans-like raindrops, the dimness of bright colors on their soaked shirts radiating the fragility of youth and of untrue happy fantasy of the world instilled by the adults. Raindrops appeared and raindrops vanished. Men born and men died. All of a sudden a strange sense of strength grew from the bottom of my heart, when the question comes to my awareness: does life even have a meaning?
This is the last puzzle of my world, and the last bondage of Philip’s life as well. Hundreds of years ago, when he lost in the painful desert after countless suffering, when the news of youth’s beloved friend died of trivial disease became the last straw and discarded him into the same wholehearted desperation, when he wandered around the street and couldn’t get the indifferent faces of the unknown passers-by out of his mind, he confronted the same question. And he found the answer, the answer that changed him, and then changed me. It was obvious. It was the same kind of question one might think over for days and when he found the answer, he would wonder how can the answer ever escape from him. Yes, life had no meaning. Like the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, the individual lived for no end but the momentary material and spiritual gratification. The rain fell, regardless of whether people want it or not, whether people are old or young, a success or a failure. It fell upon people all the same, evenly and dispassionately, so did everything else. Things followed their own natural order.
Billions of years ago a single violent burst created the universe, and a hit of satellite created all the living things on earth. Man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment, a pure result of chance as every other creature once originated from. Thus no man was special, as no life was meaningful. It only looked like meaningful because people wanted it to be, same way as they wanted to be special, which was nothing more than a primal evolutional and psychological tactic that promotes survival. If everything was meaningless, then life was rubbed from its cruelty. Life and death were without consequence and failure and success amounted to nothing. That day, aware of this, for the first time, this sense of insignificance was turned to power. That day, Philip’s last bondage vanished. He was utterly free. And he was happy, so did I.
The distant and rancorous noise from the outside started to pour back into my ears. My eyes re-focus on faint yellow pages of the book, on the paragraph that enlightened me and inspired me countless time. It amused me somehow, knowing that there was a man once who shared the same fate as I am. I gazed at the window. It was still stormy outside, but I stood up, stretched my legs, left my backpack and went out without an umbrella. I enjoyed the storm and the sense of wholehearted liberation after violent raindrops soaked me to my skin. Some people noticed me and watched me curiously, but I don’t care, as I don’t care about the memories which still incited dull pains from my heart. I was free, more than ever.