Sunday, 4 October 2015

The (Eventually) Old Man, with a cameo by the Sea (with apologies to the classic)

The young man looked all around.

In the village, the people were hungry. They had nothing to eat.

The young man had just caught some fish for his family. Maybe he could give some to the others in his village.


He didn't have enough for everyone.

He watched as young men stripped leaves off tree branches, turning them into make-believe swords, and fencing each other in mock sword fights.

Others made kites and were flying them.

But all were hungry if not starving.

"Follow me, if you want to eat! Bring your sticks and your kite strings!" said the young man.

And the young men (and some women) of the village followed him.

He brought them to the sea about an hour's walk away, taught them to turn their make-believe "swords"into fishing rods, and the kite strings into fishing lines to fish in the sea. By evening everyone had caught something to feed their families.

Now the young men (and some women) knew how to fish, and their family would have something to eat.

Now every day, they fished to feed their families.


Late one morning, the men and women who had left to fish came running back, distraught and calling for the young man.

"Come! Quickly"

The young man ran after them and found the men of the neighbouring village, blocking their way to the sea.

"This is our sea. You can't fish here," said their leader.

They argued. They threatened. They pleaded. They bargained. To no avail.

The men of the neighbouring village outnumbered them and carried crude cudgels and long staves to back their "arguments".

The young man led his villagers away. There were too many men blocking the sea. But even if there were fewer men, even if they had a good chance of prevailing, people were still going to get hurt or killed.

The young man led the group to a small river that flowed into the sea.

It was a VERY small river. At low tide, there was little water and no fish. At high tide, there was more water, and a few unlucky fish.

It was a poor fishing spot, but it was theirs. Or no one claimed it. So they did.

But some of the villagers were sceptical. How will they catch enough fish to feed their families. This river could support 3 or 4 families if they were lucky. How will it feed everyone in the Village?

The young man told them how.

First they deepened the river, and built a dam or watergate to hold the waters in at low tide. Then they planted trees and shade along the river to the mouth of the river, so fish would shelter and find their way to the river. The trees and plants had flowers and fruits and these attracted the insects in such numbers that many fell into the river and became food for the fish where the river joined the sea. Soon the river teemed with fish. The roots of the trees and plants created safe havens for small fry to shelter from larger fishes and the calm waters encouraged the fish to stay.

And at high tide at night, they would hang lanterns over the river to draw fish to the light. And before the tide ebb, the watergate would be closed to hold the water and the fish in the mouth of the river. And the villagers could fish whether it was high tide or low.

But the other villages worried the young man.

So he organised his villagers into a militia. They trained with what weapons they could fashion. They built traps and defences to protect their river. And took turns to man the defences.

All these took time.

So even as they worked to transform the small river, the young man also led some of the villagers to make boats to go out to the sea to fish.

It was difficult and the first boats they made were barely able to float. (Even though they were made of wood.) Eventually, they got better at boat-building.

It was a lot of work transforming the small river. Planting fruit trees and other plants. And building boats. And going out to sea to fish. And building defences and traps to protect their river and boats.

And all these hard work kept everyone busy.

And some couldn't help wondering if there might be more to life.

It was at that time that Sophia returned to the village.


Sophia had been gone for a few years. She had left when she had disagreed publicly with the young man as to what the village needed.

Sophia had listened with trepidation to the young man's plans for the village then. His plans would destroy the way of life that she had grown up with, and love. His plans called for villagers to sacrifice their time and effort - to build boats, and train as militia, and man the defences, possibly to fight, and kill, and even die.

She saw what the Plan entailed and tried to warn the villagers. But they would not listen. Especially not to a silly little girl.

So she left.

She travelled to far off places, saw how the world worked in other places. Saw how things were in other villages, and towns and cities, and yearned for these things for her village.

And when she felt she had learned enough, and when her heart ached to be home again, to see her parents, and her family, she returned.

And she saw the hard life the people of her village faced every day. The dreary unending, unremitting, relentless struggle for survival - mending nets, building or repairing boats, tending to the River, the Defences, and the Militia training. And her heart ached for them, and the lost of the slow village life.

"Listen!" she said. "It doesn't have to be like this. In other places, people have time for Life! I remember a Village where young men could take time out to have fun, where swords were wooden, and fights were playful. I remember a time, when we had time to make kites and fly them. Now we train and prepare to fight for real, to kill and perhaps be killed. Now we make boats to carry us out to the dangerous sea, instead of making kites to fly and carry our dreams to the sky. It doesn't have to be this way! We do not have to follow the Plan!"

Sophia's words struck home for many of the people in the village. Her words lodged in their hearts and found a home with their memories.

Some were old enough to remember those idyllic times when men could be boys at heart, and play at war instead of training for it.

But others remembered the "idyllic" times differently.

"Sophia is dangerous," they said to the no-longer-young man. "She is rousing some of the men of the village with her talk of a simpler life, with no need for a militia."


"They are lying to you! There is no need for the militia. When have we ever been attacked by our neighbours? Our neighbours are our friends!"

"They haven't attacked us because we have a militia!"

"Really? I have an amulet here from a far away land. This amulet will keep crocodiles away! Since I returned to this village with this amulet, have there been any crocodile attacks in the village? Since I came back with this amulet, no one has even seen a crocodile in these parts! So. Anyone wants to buy my crocodile-repelling amulet?"


"Sophia is smart and has a way with words. She is dividing the people of the village. She is dangerous. She has to be stopped!"

"Is what she is saying true? Do the people believe her?"

"She twists the truth. There is enough truth to gild the lies. To make her lies believable."

"Then show the people that she lies."

"We are not as clever as her, not as good with words as her. We cannot argue as well as her. She speaks to the heart and the people want to believe. We speak to the head, and the people are tired of our words. They have heard it all before. Her words are fresh. Her lies are new. Or if not new, they are lies that lie within the heart of hearts. She does not need to lie to them. She finds the lies the people believe in their hearts, and give them voice. They hear in her words, the lies in their heart, and they already BELIEVE it is true, they already KNOW it is true."

"Surely Truth will prevail?"

"It is said that Lies go around the world before Truth even has time to tie its shoelaces."

"That must be a very old saying."

"Yes. It is. It was written in a time when shoes had laces."

"Well, perhaps Truth's shoes now has velcro fasteners instead of laces."


Nature, the no-longer-young man realised, was cruel. He was watching a mother bird pretending to be injured to lure a cat away from her nest. Her flailing erratic moves drew the attention of the cat, and it started to stalk the bird. The bird was convincing in its flailing and the cat pounced. The bird timed its "escape" perfectly, pretending to try to fly away at the last moment with a broken wing, just managing to elude the cat's pounce. The cat gave chase. the bird fluttered away always just beyond the reach of the cat, teasing the cat with near misses that promised the cat that it might just get the bird with the next try. And the cat tried a little too hard, pounced a little to fast, and found itself falling as it over shot the edge of the cliff that the bird had led it to.

Immediately, the bird dropped its pretence of injury and dove down towards the cat who, as cats are wont to do, have twisted in the air and was prepared to land on it's feet and would likely survive the fall.

But the bird sank its claws and it's beak into the back of the cat in mid fall.

The cat yowled and twisted to get at its tormentor.

The bird pulled up as the cat twisted. The swat of its claws just missing the bird.

But the bird had achieved its objective.

The cat landed on its back. It must have struck its head on a rock or a root.

Death was instantaneous.



"What I do, I do because I believe it to be Right. People should be free to decide how to live their lives. People should be free to choose."

"But they are free. They can leave anytime they want. There are no gates or locks or fences around our village. Many have in fact, left. You had left."

"Yes. And I came back because I believe that my fellow villagers needed to be free."

"And you do not hear the contradiction in what you just said? You were free to leave. And you were free to return. But somehow you feel our villagers are not free to leave? That you needed to rescue them? Do you have some sort of Messiah Complex?"

"Not all of them can leave! Those who can build boats, or make fishing nets, they can leave because they have skills that they can use elsewhere. But many others have no choice! They cannot leave because they cannot make a living elsewhere!"

"Exactly. Where else would they be accepted? What they have here is a chance for a livelihood. Elsewhere, they would be refugees - beggars and outcasts. What they have is a place where they belong, where they fit in, where they can contribute. What do you offer them?"

"I offer them human dignity! I offer them a chance to be truly human, to be able to choose how they want to live their life."

"And what would this choice be?"

"To choose to BE here and to do What they want! What you offer them is conditional! They CAN be here but ONLY if they do as you think they should! They are NOT free!"

"Ah. You want to give them freedom without conditions, without reciprocity, without responsibility."

"That is the ONLY True Freedom!"

The no-longer-young man thought of something he had read: Only in our dreams are we truly free. The rest of the time, we need wages.

He stopped debating with her because he remembered something else that he had learned: those seeking the truth are infinitely to be preferred to those who think they’ve found it. Sophia had "found" the TRUTH, and her mind was closed. There was no point continuing. Her points would all be theoretical, backed by soaring principles, and idealistic assumptions, and divorced from reality, repercussions, and responsibility.

She had her strength of conviction, and like many people of conviction, she believed that that was all that was needed. Faith - if you believe in it enough, it will come true.

The no-longer-young man had found that people of conviction are mostly delusional. Not all. Just most. And they tell themselves delusional stories about believing in themselves, following their dreams, and chasing their passion. In the words of the satirist:
"If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.”
It was his observation (still being tested and checked against facts) that people who fight for human rights, are often ignorant of human nature.

He wondered if, from her perspective, his might be the closed mind. His mind was closed to "arguments" that were simply bald assertions or platitudes. He would not dispute that. But he could still be convinced by facts, with evidence that alternatives were realistic and had considered real consequences, and not glossed over them with platitudes or idealism. But just as platitudes will not convince him, facts and reality will not convince Sophia. Idealists, the no-longer-young man thought, may be defined as people who don't let facts get in the way of their Truth.

His advisers were right. Sophia and her words were dangerous. Not because she was right or that she spoke the Truth, but because people wanted to believe the lies that lie at the heart of their hearts.


"I have been to great cities where people were treated with dignity, where they spent their time pursuing their love for art, for song, for creating. Where life was not just one hard slog day after day. Where there was joy in life. Where there was meaning in life. Where people had a song in their hearts, and a spring in their step. Where people really LIVED instead of merely surviving. "

"What are you living for? Your whole life a s struggle. What Are You Struggling FOR? To raise your children? To do what? So they can struggle THEIR whole life too? Is this what you want for your life? Is this the life you want for your CHILDREN? And your children's children?"

If this is NOT the life you want for yourself and for your children, then you know what we must do!"


Sophia was caught together with twenty of her most ardent followers damaging or destroying the fishing boats, the river defences, and the watergate.

They were brought to an uninhabited island about 20 minutes by boat from the shore, where they could not do any more harm, and kept there without any means of leaving the island. Two boats were stationed on either side of the island to ensure no one left and no boats landed on the island without permission.

Over time, her followers were released one or two at a time. The now-middle-aged man spoke to them. Or his advisers spoke to them, and convinced them that what they did harmed the village and the villagers. When they promised that they would not sabotage the village or harm the people, the middle-aged man and his advisers released them. Most resume their lives in the village and tried to put the incident behind them. Some even volunteered to help repair the damage they had done.

And a few, no more than a handful, immediately left the village and was never heard from again, and never returned to the village.

Eventually, only Sophia was left on the island. She refused to give up her struggle, and stuck to her principles and her beliefs.

It presented him with a dilemma: detain her on the island indefinitely or release her and risk further harm to the village and their livelihood and security.

There was a third option, self-selected by the followers who left the village immediately after their release - voluntary self-exile.

But she refused that option too.

Forced exile or banishment would present another problem: how to enforce it? And this does not prevent her from fomenting dissent and rebellion from afar.

But the problem of one ideologically-bound woman's refusal to capitulate faded into the background when more pressing matters of food, security, natural disasters and accidents, and relationship with neighbouring villages demanded the attention of the middle-aged man.

Still, he made it a point to check on Sophia. At first weekly. Then monthly. Then every other month. Then every three months. And as she would consider any compromise as a betrayal of her ideals, the middle-aged man found time spent checking on her to be unfruitful. The time between his visits stretched longer and longer until he only checked on her once a year. And the checks were becoming perfunctory.


"If you are released, do you promise not to sabotage the village or harm the villagers."

"It is you who are harming the villagers!"

The middle-aged man sighed. It was the same answer she gave everytime. He put her answer down as "no".

"You've been here for some time now. And we have built a hut, a shower, an outhouse, a kitchen, and even a small garden. Do you have any suggestions or request for future improvements?"

"A puppy would be nice."

"We'll take it under advisement."


One year, during the annual visit to the island, Sophia was nowhere to be found.

The now-old man pondered the problem. Sighed. And returned to the village.

"Sophia is gone," he said simply.
"He must have killed her!"

"Sophia's escaped?"

"Wait! Who's Sophia?"

Conjecture and conspiracy theories swirled unbounded, each vying to be the dominant narrative.

Broadly, there were narratives that the old man did away with her finally, after all these years. Then there were the narratives that Sophia had escaped, possibly with the help of some of her former followers who had chosen exile.

"Sir, there are rumours that you killed Sophia and is covering it up by saying she escaped."

"Yes, I know."

"Sir, you must stop these rumours!"

"Must I?"

"I mean you might want to consider an appropriate response to put these rumours to rest."

"And what would be an 'appropriate response'?"

"Deny these rumours categorically! Prove that you had nothing to do with her disappearance."

"Prove a negative? That would be fun to try."

"You cannot let this rumour persist!"

"I cannot?"

"I mean, you have to stop these rumours from spreading!"

"How do you propose I do that? You have a plan to stop rumours from spreading? To stop people from talking?"

"But it is not true!"

"Weren't you the one who told me that Lies run around the world, before Truth can get its shoes on?"

"So we let the lies go unchallenged?"

"Rumours are like smoke. You can close the doors and windows, but it will still come through. You will still smell the smoke. There's no point fighting smoke. It's not nice, but it's not the problem you want to solve. The problem is the fire and how to put it out. The problem here also is that it is not one big fire. It's lots of little fires. And you cannot put out all the fires. For as long as people want to believe that Sophia was 'done away with', there is no way to convince them otherwise. Facts will not interest them. Logic will just bore them. Reason eludes them. When people are not ready to listen, talking is a waste of time."

"And you will let them believe that you used unreasonable means to destroy your opponents?"

The Old Man looked his Aide in the eyes.

His Aide wondered if he had finally gotten through. If this appeal to his reputation and good name was the approach to use to reach the Old Man.

The Old Man said, "to protect this village, these people, and our livelihood, I will use ALL means necessary. Don't you think detaining the saboteurs on the island was already "unreasonable"? If there are rules of "fair play", don't you think we already bent if not broke some of them? This is not a game. Lives and livelihood are at stake. If they had destroyed what we had built over the years, the people would have suffered. We have neither the time nor the luxury to play games by some rules of fair play. When life and death are on the line, if you're not cheating, if you are not willing to do whatever is necessary, then you don't really want to live that badly."

"So do I care that rumours may stain my reputation? What does it profit our people if I save my reputation, but lose their livelihood, the means of their survival? Isn't my reputation an insignificant price to pay? I would protect this village as a mother bird protects her nest. If my life is no sacrifice to me, what then is my reputation?"

"In any case, this is all for the good. If in future my opponents believe and understand that I am willing to do ANYTHING to protect the life we have built, then this will give the dilettante pause.  Leaving only the truly committed, the true believers, or the truly stupid, to fight a battle for high stakes."

"Mortal stakes."

"Yes. 'Only when Love and Need are one, and work is play for mortal stakes, is the deed ever really done, for heaven's and the future's sake.'" He quoted Robert Frost. "We are not playing games here. What we do is 'life and death' work, and we are 'playing'  for mortal stakes."


(an Explanation of sorts for those who need one.)

"We will never know will we?"

"Know what?"

"Whether he 'black ops' Sophia?"

"Sophia who?"

The other villager explained.

"Oh, THAT Sophia. She's unimportant."

"Maybe. But now that the Old Man is dead, people are wondering."

"That is what people do."

"But don't you wonder how our lives might have turned out if Sophia had tried to change our village?"

After a while, the villager replied, "it would have made for interesting times."

"Exactly! Life would have been more Interesting!"

The villager looked at the younger one who had just spoken, as if he were mad.

"The Old Man did not do what he did to make life interesting. He did what was necessary because the only immorality is not doing what must be done when it must be done. He didn't do it to prove a point, or prove a theory, or to make a statement or to make a name for himself, or to make others look bad."

"But this Sophia thing would be a blemish on his legacy."

"And what legacy is that?"

"That he was a GREAT man. Great Men do not 'black ops' their opponents! That is a blemish on his reputation and would reduce his 'greatness'!"

"Two things. First, he does not see his legacy as being a "Great man". Second, we do not know what happened to Sophia, so any 'blemish' is the result of speculation and conjecture."

"But if Sophia is alive today, his death would have allowed her to speak freely."

"So all that says is that Sophia may not be alive today."

"So he killed her or had her killed?"

"Really? That is the ONLY possible answer?"

"What else?"

"Any number of things. There is a huge gap of time between the disappearance of Sophia and now. Anything could have happened, and we would not know of it  If she had escaped and hoped her 'disappearance' would cast suspicions on the Old Man, it worked. And for that to continue to work, she would have to continue to stay 'disappeared'. So she MAY not be dead. Just keeping quiet. In fact she would face more question if she were to re-appear - where had she been? how did she escaped? What did she planned to do? She said she wanted to free the village, why did she escape and kept hiding."

"Or she could be dead."

"Or she really could be dead and the Old Man really did have her killed. We don't know."

"So I guess, we'll never know."

"'Never' is a very long time."

"But why do you say she is unimportant?"

"She is unimportant for two reasons. One, she didn't do anything."

"But she wanted to! She tried to!"


"The Old Man was just too smart for her."

"Exactly. History is written by the winners. Not by well-intentioned idealists and dilettantes."

"And the second reason?"

"She didn't realise the stakes she was playing for, and she failed. She failed for a lack of preparation, a lack of planning, a lack of execution, a lack of the comprehension of the risks, and a lack of understanding of the opponent she was facing, and a complete failure to understand the resolve of the Old Man."

"But that doesn't make her a bad person."

Again the villager looked at the younger one for a while before replying very slowly, "What has that got to do with anything? She has good intentions. The road to hell, I heard, is paved with them. But running a village, or town or city or country requires some competence. Leading people requires one to understand them. She could not even understand her opponent, and if you are going to fight you MUST understand your opponent. And that is just one man. How can you lead if you are so full of yourself that you are unable to understand the concerns of the common people?"

"THAT is why she failed."

"THAT is why she is unimportant."

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