One of the few things (IMHO) human beings have atrophied, at least partially, is their ability to tell a story. Not writing a story; I happen to believe a great many of us are still capable of that, now and then. Think Robert Browning, Stephen King, Franz Kafka, Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. We know how to, in words, weave a grand tale into a limitless tapestry, from essentially one strand of thread. Books like the Dhammapada were originally oral history, but were penned by someone. Same for much of Egyptian history pre-cuneiform, pre-Rosetta Stone - such was the tradition, to tell stories to the next generation. However, everyone has played the game in school, where the first word is uttered into an ear, and when it reaches the final person, it is something completely different. There are some stories which are so awe- and thought-inspiring that they lose little over the centuries, and the story that follows is, to me, a prime example, and I wish to write it down for you. I don't know where the story comes from, exactly, but I will share what I do know. I originally heard the story when I was fourteen years old, from my aunt Angel. She read it from a book, but it was an interpretation of a Hindu story, she said, Christianized so that people would recognize two of the characters. At least, that's how it was explained to me. And here, I reproduce it for you, to pass on to someone else.
The Story of Rama, the Old Man.
One day in Heaven, the archangel Uriel appeared before God with a downcast face.
"My angel," God said to him, "What is wrong?"
"It's earth, Lord," she replied. "I have seen a great sadness, so disheartening that I can barely speak of it."
God laughed, said, "Earth! No lack of sadness down there. But if it is so saddening that an angel of God hurts because of it, I must see what it is you mean."
And the archangel Uriel pointed down at earth at an old man. And as she did, he pitched forward in the dirt. He was an old man, the oldest of men perhaps, with little hair. His mousy robes were caked with dirt, his begging bowl as empty as his stomach, his walking stick gnarled and twisted. From a field nearby, a group of young men laughed and pointed their fingers at him.
"See that!" Uriel moaned. "They hate him!"
Ah, I see," said God. "That is Rama, that is his job."
Uriel could not meet the face of her Lord.
"Watch him for a time, you'll see what I mean. His purpose in the world is to be ridiculed, to be made fun of, cursed at. He goes from town to town, with his begging bowl in hand, and he does well. Look, Uriel. He's made it to old age. Obviously he does well."
On earth, Rama was picking himself up off the ground. He dusted his robes off, trying to look moederately respectable doing so. He groped around for his cane and his begging bowl, dust in his eyes. When he found them, he began to walk on the road to Chandrapur. Every step caused him pain, but he did not complain. He walked with a quiet dignity, his toothless mouth smilling at passers-by, who would look at him, mystified, as if he were some bizarre species of animal they'd never seen before.
Before long, Rama came across a great house with dogs in their front yard. Now, Rama was fond of dogs, so he stumbled a little closer to them, offered up the toothless smile. The dogs, for their part, were non-plussed and began to growl and snap and bark. And as Rama began to back up, he bumped into something soft. A dog! "Oh!" cried Rama, and stepped back, but the dog was quicker. Playfully, it nipped at the frayed edges of Rama's robe, causing him to flail his arms about to keep his balance (he was a very thin, slight man, a beggar as he was). The other dogs - there were about four in total - thought this was a great game, or maybe that Rama was food. They began to nip at his heels, causing Rama to cry out in anger and frustration. Before long, Rama was hastening a retreat, towards Chandrapur, and through wild swingings of his walking stick, was able to drive them away. The damage was done, though, his ankles were bitten raw and sore.
As he walked, leaning heavily on his walking stick for support, he came upon a group of young boys, playing on the side of the road. He thought they looked beautiful, so happy and content. Like his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He approached the boys and said, "Ho there, young friends, what game are you playing on this fine day?"
The boys looked at Rama and laughed. They pointed their fingers, and Rama was hurt. They began to sling stones at him, and Rama had to shuffle away, but not before a few stones had struck him in the chest. Complaining bitterly, Rama walked on.
He came upon a group of vibrant teen girls. They looked so gorgeous, in the blossoming of their adulthood. Though the lust in his loins had died some years earlier, he could still appreciate the immense beauty of these girls. And, straightening his back and running his ahnds through what little hair he had, he walked up to the group of young girls, and smiled, his mouth toothless and a little dirty. The girls, frowning upon the old man at first, soon began to laugh and point their fingers at Rama.
"What do you want, you dirty old man? We don't want you here, you're nothing but a filthy old beggar!"
Rama was hurt, more than the dogs, more than the young children playing, and a tears began to spring up in his eyes. This made the girls laugh louder at him, and chagrined, he started to walk up the Chandrapur road again.
And just when he was beginning to think that his day could not get any worse, his trusty walking stic, which he'd had for years and years, broke under him. He pitched forward into the dirt. He laid in the dirt for a few moments, utterly nonplussed at this new change in events, and began to scramble to his feet.
And in heaven, the archangel Uriel cried out. God put a loving hand on her shoulder.
"What troubles you so?" God asked.
"Look at his travails, Lord! He's but an old man! Yet the dogs bite at him, the children laugh at him, and the girls think he is a sick old man! Lord, can you do nothing to ease his suffering?"
God simply smiled upon His archangel, said, "As I've told you already, this is his lot in life, this is his job. Just watch and listen." And not wanting to anger, or otherwise upset her Lord, she watched.
And on earth, Rama was cursing and sputtering. He stood to his feet, and looked up at the sky. Uriel, for her part, saw the anger on his face.
Rama said, "Lord, I have been alive for many, many years. Though I praise you for my long life, I wonder at Your reasons. M family are either dead or fled to other lands. I am too old to work, Lord, and my hands hurt most of the time; I am forced to beg. I have no teeth, and I cannot taste food very well, I am incontinent. I cannot hear as I did in my youth..." Rama went on, but the Lord God turned to his archangel.
God said, "See? He still praises Me for what gifts he does have. But I see your suffering, and it harms me to see it. So..." And god stretched his hand out over the river Ganges, and picked up a diamond the size of a goose egg, and dropped it beside the road where Rama was. Had Rama's hearing not faded out over the cousre of his long life, he would have heard the diamond hit the dirt in the ditch. Meanwhile, Rama was still shaking his fist at the heavens, and going on with his diatribe:
"Yes, my Lord, that's right, I can't hear as I once could. I cannot taste food, or smell roses in the air in the springtime. Only my eyes are as good as they were in my youth. You've taken everything from me, Lord, and I do not know why. I know You love me, Lord, but I do not think You love me." He paused for a moment, and a dull smile appeared on his grizzled face. "Though, I must be happy for my eyes, as they are. At least I am not blind, Lord!"
With this statement, Rama gathered the larger portion of his walking stick from the ground, to use as well as he could. With his free arm, he covered his eyes and walked around, pitching forward and falling all over, getting as dirty as it is possible to get. As he did, he walked right past the diamond God had placed their with His own hand. Rama continued like this for several minutes, walking down the Chandrapur Road. He tripped on the ground and fell flat, but he looked up at the heavens and said:
"My Lord, You have taken my family from me over the years, and some of my happiness and comfort. You've even seen it as wise to take some of my senses from me, and even now I find my thoughts slower than they were when I was young. You've taken many things from me, and forced me to beg on the Chandrapur Road. But Lord, what a horrible thing it would be if I were blind, as well! I could not imagine it! So, I thank You and praise You for this gift, that my eyes have not failed me. Such thoughts will keep me warm and happy, at least for the rest of the day."
And the Lord God, pleased, took his diamond back, and buried it under the sands at the mouth of the river Ganges. He took and irony branch of a powerful oak tree, and dropped it up the road from Rama...where it would trip him if he wasn't careful. God, seeing Rama with his bowl out, and prepared to walk again, He turned to his archangel.
"You see, Uriel, Rama was embittered because of the things which had happened to him in his life. That his senses had failed, that he was not rich, or powerful, or comfortable. That diamond would have fed him and anyone he loves for the rest of his days. But he found beauty in the smaller things in life. And for such joy, I have provided him with a new walking stick, which will serve him for the rest of his days."
A little abashed, Uriel was unable to meet the burning, fiery face of her Lord. "Have you taught me a lesson, Lord?"
I don't know," God replied blandly. "Have I?"