"From humble beginnings come great things". This is one of the most inspiring and beloved quotes describing our favorite stories of earnest perseverance and rising above life's tragedies. While all of that is divinely encouraging, however, I want to tell a story that began with riches, but ended humbly with a different kind of wealth.
Almost 10 years ago I was considered a hard working woman who had it all; new car, new apartment, designer dog, new clothes every week. This wasn't too far off from how I started life either- I was sheltered by my parents and never wondered if life could get any better. I had good work ethic and worked a lot to accumulate a lot. I maintained a naïve equation in my head that worked; riches = happiness. I had it all figured out until I met a humble man who worked at a local vitamin store. I had seen him once before- at a gym, working out.
This man, Iven, was a hard worker in the gym- I admired that trait. I frequented the store where he worked, but he always seemed painfully shy around me. I couldn't tell if he was just completely uninterested in talking to me or maybe a little curious, but genuinely shy- another trait to be revered in a handsome man. There was small talk between us, but the most disturbing feeling awakened in me when I left each time. He'd have a look in his eyes of agony, begging me to never leave, like it was always the last time, like I had been with him forever, but somewhere else, maybe some other time. Who knows, right? I did know this was a completely new feeling- never felt it before I met and him and never would again with anyone else.
Months went by and I was thankfully beginning to be assured he was not too interested in me- he never pursued more than simple conversation. Yes, this was a relief to me; after all I had everything I wanted and nothing to complicate it. My mother, on the other hand, who heard me speak of Iven only once, had become insistent on me pursuing something. This was certainly not my style.
Usually she respected my "butt out" rule when it came to my life. One day we were shopping together and she blatantly told me, "You must find out if there is something more. Just ask or give him your number." "Ha", I said defiantly and marched right into the store for my usual protein bars. As I was thinking about my mom's absurd advice, Iven spoke softly, almost whispered. "Would you like to do something sometime." "That sounds fun", I said, hoping I had not just imagined his words. I gave him my number.
To my surprise Iven eagerly, refraining no excitement whatsoever, accepted my number and lit up like a little boy on Christmas morning with a brand new puppy. Suddenly he returned to the vibrant man the first day I saw him. No more eery feeling of agony every time I left the store. He asked me to go on a picnic with him and that was the beginning.
And so this story unravels... The picnic was perfect, but still a nagging, haunting feeling lingered somewhere behind the scenes to this story. I believe we discovered we were soul mates that first day complete with the same birthday. As cliché as it sounds, looking at him was like looking in the mirror- our souls were identical. Just knowing him was proof a soul existed.
We both shared the same values, the same interests, and being with him replaced needing anything else, or anything that I had known my life to be. Sure, I had felt new romance before him, new love, lustful feelings for someone, but this was phenomenally different. I wanted to protect what we had and put it in a universe where time stood still.
His natural innocence reignited what I had lost and thought about the cruel world. He was not a rich man nor had he ever been- he grew up without his father and was still in the midst of humble beginnings. Even though I had enough money to pay for our ensuing dates, he insisted on paying- working hard on his grandfather's farm, besides his regular job, to "Take me out like a lady", he would say triumphantly as if he conquered a new world. He had more happiness in his humble life than I ever knew in anyone.
From the day he accepted my number, he never failed to call me and see me every single glorious day for months until one Monday- August 6, 2001. The day grew later and sadder- I could feel it. I had put that haunting, uneasy feeling aside long before this day, but it returned eager and suffocating. My universe got smaller somehow and every step I took was overwhelming, heavy with dread. I finally got a call that evening from his mother who stated, among other things that I don't remember, Iven was gone. A drowning accident- he drowned from the turbulence of a waterfall earlier in the day, swimming with his cousin and friends. Oddly, the haunting feeling instantly disappeared because it came and left full circle. It all made horrible sense.
Regret took over my senses. He had said he loved me two days prior to his passing. Actually he said in that innocent way, "I think I love you". Within my selfish armor, I misunderstood the 'I think' part and decided not to say 'I love you' back to him. I wanted to be sure he knew, but I knew he was sure, he was just that same shy man I had first met. I forgot to honor that wonderful trait in him.
His passing and the days afterward were a blur; sleeping, praying for peace for his family, crying, losing meaning in what used to make me happy; my car, my place, money, etc. I wanted nothing...
The Last Time
My Humble Philosophy
One month later, listening intently to a lecture in my college World Religions course about Buddhism, I woke up from my zombie-dazed grief. My own philosophy was born and the answer to this tragedy had to mean something to honor who he was.
I gained valuable insight; Everything you can, and have the power to, hold onto is not worth holding onto. But everything you want the most, worth life itself, is not possible for you to hold onto. Riches only fool us of course. We often miss out on the important stuff because of their blinding trance over us. They fool us into believing they are an ultimate destination, but they are nothing, not even close to who we are in this universe.
Hard work gives forth riches, but not always of the monetary and material kind. There is a lot of hard work to be done within us too. Many a man will climb a mountain, but refuse to reflect on his life. That's how difficult the work inside us is.
I later learned from Iven's mother he had health issues form the time he was born. When he overcame that, the doctors told him he would never keep up with the other kids, but he did and played sports too. His hard work was not solely for money, it was for survival, for his spirit and made him a better person at such a young age.
During my grieving, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in New York so I was not the only one learning a humble lesson. It was more powerful to know the whole country was grieving as well. With everything happening, and without knowing what exactly I was doing, I gave up my new car for an old one, gave up my new apartment for a meager hole in the wall, and all my decorations and furnishings- donated, and everything else money had once made me happy with- gone. Things I used to view as uncomplicated were now cluttering my life. When I later tried to make sense of what I did, I believe it was in honor of Iven, perhaps practicing his humility and hoping to hang onto his presence with only the important things in life.
I enjoyed simplifying my life. I moved on- inevitably, and never lived my life the same. It marks a distinct time of spiritual awakening, infinite depth within my small corner of the universe, freedom to live without a strict or typical definition of "riches",and most of all humbled to my knees, praying for the impossible sometimes, but still believing in it. Even though it seems this depth was valued only between myself and Iven, I keep it alive inside me for his sake and for my survival.
Each person must learn their own lessons and for me this was a tragedy that finally reached a place inside me to really begin my life, but knowing the end will always be humbling.
I didn't see you leave. I wonder how am I still here...
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