“Old Vicente of Formentera was perhaps the happiest man I have ever known. And also perhaps the poorest.”
So goes the line from Eva-Lis Wuorio’s introduction to the “Singing Silence”, a story about how a poor, old man found happiness after breaking an amphora.
The story goes this way:
Vicente was an old porter. Just like everybody else, he dreamed of success and a happier life. However, despite all his hard work, he never really got what he wanted. He had to settle for a mediocre way of living, working only so he could have enough to feed for himself and to pay his rent. In other words, he wasn’t happy. One day, while he worked, an American asked him to carry his luggage – among which was an ancient amphora, a very expensive relic. He struggled to carry it, but as soon as he almost reached the American’s quarters, the amphora fell and broke into pieces. Vicente promised to look for a new one and asked the American for his address. Since then, Vicente abandoned his job as a porter and determined to search for an amphora under the sea. Ignoring the townspeople’s taunts at his sanity, Vicente continued to search for an amphora that may not be found. He learned to swim, despite his old age, and never gave up on the search – even when he never had enough to eat.
After reading a few lines from the text, the reader starts to wonder how a poor, old man who is already too weak for his age, and with barely anything to eat, could give up all his chances of living normally in search of something that may never be found? Could it even be possible for a man in his situation to find ultimate happiness?
Looking closely, most people wouldn’t even think they’d be happy living in Vicente’s conditions. Vicente was literally poor – having no more source of income and depending only on the few bread and water others may give him. His old age is getting the best of him. Most of all, hardly anyone thinks of him as Vicente anymore. To many, he is just “loco“.
However, Vicente became happy because he chose to be happy.
The choice and opportunity that came about when he broke the amphora could have been easily given up by the old man. He could just forget the mistake and move on with his life. But he still chose to hold on to it, risking the comfortable life he led – even risking his sanity and his public image.
The story is simply a portrayal of man’s pursuit of happiness. Here we see a man with barely anything, yet completely happy. Then we see the others – the taunting public – others who, like us, stare in amazement at people like Vicente. These people – normal, possibly successful – simply observe Vicente, yet always choose to go back to their normal, quiet lives. No underwater sea adventure. No ambitious dreams – only those that are not pursued. Not experiencing the joy that Vicente has experienced. These people are more inclined to live in their comfortable lives and do not try to make much difference with their own. They only dream what everyone else dream. And all they do, is observe Vicente with wonder.
These people are just like everyone else in our social environment: passive, apathetic and overly concerned with living normally. They live on the thought of living, dreaming and dying just like everyone else.
There may be those who get to the middle and wonder, “Am I truly happy?” And that’s when they begin their search. Some may find happiness, some may not. And some may continue on living everyone else’s dream, in hopes that doing so would bring them happiness.
But, looking closely, we can see that these people are mostly sad or simply unfeeling. Their vision of happiness is just too idealistic that they become blinded with the thought of following those ideals. They waste their times on gaining social approval because they believe that it will bring them to that point of ultimate happiness. And, so, they stress, and judge others based on what they also think they need for themselves – beauty, wealth, intelligence and fame. Because of this, some are willing to risk their already happy lives for a taste of what it feels like to be up there. While most of those who choose to remain happy by their own standards are judged, without realizing that these people are probably happier than they will ever br.
When Vicente broke the amphora, it brought him a chance to enter a new life and an opportunity to give up the “prison he has made for himself” – his old life.
Starting life anew with a goal and a chance for change was like being a bird which just shed all of its feathers and replacing them with new ones in order to fly on a new kind of journey.
The change made him feel like a new man.
The goal to find the amphora was the decision to find a new life. And the happiness found at the sea was the fulfillment of a wish long lost. It was a way to introduce himself to a world that is both beautiful and different, a heaven only which he can indulge in. His continued trips to the sea were not about finding the amphora anymore, that has become the bonus. His trips became more of an acknowledgment of his new reality – the reliving of the satisfaction of being a renewed, happy individual.
As Father Pedro in the story said: “Vicente has the search. It’s not what he finds…but the search itself that is important. Only the search.”
That statement not only applies to the protagonist of the story, but also to all of us. We may continue to search and search in hopes of finding that happiness, without realizing that it has always been in front of us. The search itself is already the happiness we were looking for. All we really needed to do is to take a quick turn to change our lives. And maybe, just maybe, that small quick turn is already our very own gateway to the search that is actually our happiness.
June 25 2010
An essay on “The Singing Silence”