An island funeral and the secret of happiness

I was grumpily having breakfast at a small wooden table at the harbour last Sunday. Some breakfasts are just grumpy breakfasts for no good reason. Nothing seems quite right: the world, usually so chaotic, now seems joined in an exquisitely coordinated conspiracy against my happiness. There’s a bee in my honey; they don’t have any of those tangy cheese pies with flaky pastry today; I’ve walked all the way down the hill with my postcards and writing paper but I’ve left my pen behind; that man at the other table is coughing just to annoy me.

The coughing guy was good at his job. He wheezed and hacked and turned a mottled puce. Each time he coughed he raised his eyebrows afterwards and shook his head as though in surprise. Wow! He seemed to be saying. Where did that cough come from? I haven’t coughed like that since I was a young man in Suez! There’s no surprise, buddy. You’ve been coughing for a full ten seconds every thirty seconds for the last twenty minutes. The element of surprise has worn off.

I picked up my book to read and realized I’d picked up the wrong book. This was the book I finished in bed that morning. I sat back and listened to the coughing guy cough and glared at the picturesque view. A pre-World War One garbage truck came growling down the road toward me. I don’t think it’s a working garbage truck – I think some guy found an old abandoned garbage truck one day and fixed up the carburetor or whatever and now he drives it around every Sunday morning. He is very proud of his vintage vehicle, so he drives it extremely slowly with his elbow out the window, checking out the scene, like a middle-aged man in a sports car on the Camps Bay strip in summer.

The garbage truck gave me something new to glare at. Why does it have to be so loud? Why does it have to be slow? Then, with no warning, he leaned on his horn. I jumped a little at the sound, and I filled with a righteous persecuted rage. There is no cause to make this kind of noise on a Sunday morning when someone is trying to eat breakfast. And why hasn’t he stopped? Why is he still sounding the horn? This is an act of aggression. I found myself pushing back my chair and standing up in high dudgeon like a grumpy old man, preparing to march up to the garbage truck and give that guy a damn good piece of my mind.

And then one of the fishing boats started blowing their horn too, and then another, and another. I was flabbergasted. Did they think this was funny? Was every Greek on the island going out of their way to ruin my day? I didn’t care if I had to fight them one by one, by God they would not get away with this!

In his book Happiness, the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard tells a story to illustrate the emptiness of anger and the folly of ego. Imagine you’re drowsing in a rowboat on a peaceful summer’s afternoon. You’re lying back, watching the clouds drift by, peaceful and happy, when suddenly another boat collides with yours. You sit up, furious, indignant! Who has been so careless or malicious? Who has so cavalierly shattered your happiness? A wrong has been committed against your person; your dignity has been bruised.

But then you see that the boat that has collided with you is empty. It came unmoored and drifted down the river and randomly made contact with yours. Instantly your rage subsides. The grievance vanishes, the desire for redress, the need to defend yourself against those taking advantage of you. Nothing has fundamentally changed – the facts of the matter are all identical – but the story is different. No one has tried to hurt you. No one has disrespected you. It’s not about you. You are not the centre of the world. Events are just events, and you add the meaning. If you have any self-awareness at all, you feel embarrassed for having been so fragile and self-important.

I looked down the seafront and a slow procession was making its way down the avenue of mulberry trees and along the water’s edge – a hundred, two hundred people, most of the population of the village, walking with slow purpose along the stone walkway that winds around the bay and up the green hill to the blue-domed church on the ridge. Each car that passed blew its horn. Each boat that saw them sounded its foghorn.

The coughing man said, “Someone has died.”

The procession made its way up the hill, a community walking in silence amid the mournful blaring of a strangers who see their passing, who see their loss, making sound to say we are all human together and if you can hear this then rejoice for you are still alive.

Times, 12 June 2018