I’ve always been fond of using the word “character” to describe something I like. That chair has “character”, that shirt has “character”, that building has “character”. I’m not sure where I picked that up, but I enjoy describing things or people that way. I guess it’s because, in my head anyway, when something has “character”, it means that it has a story to tell, as opposed to, for example, a chair that is really just a chair, or a shirt that is really just a shirt, or a building that is really just a building.
Which is one of the reasons why I’ve always found the notion of a “simple” life fascinating. How is it possible? Even a person who has practically nothing in life, and who has never left his house, is still a complex individual, if only because of his reasons for having nothing, or for not wanting anything. No one is ever truly simple; we are made up of rationalizations, impetuses, emotions, thoughts and ideas, so much so that to ascribe the word “simple” to any of us is to insult the very nature of our humanity. Even people who do not think are complex, if only we take the time to understand why they do not think in the first place.
I remember my grandfather, the son of a married man and his mistress, who grew up in one of the poorer towns of Pampanga. He was a farmer, who managed to raise 8 children properly, all with college degrees, and who all work as professionals. He lived a “simple” life, simple in the sense that he is not greedy, or lustful, or ambitious. He just wanted to give his children a better life than he had. So I’ve always thought of him as a simple man, one not prone to self-aggrandizing stories, or ambitious dreams. He preferred the sidelines, always shining the spotlight on everyone else except himself.
And then he told me this one story, during the Japanese-American-Philippine war, when he joined the Hukbalahap movement, which was then a military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines. He was a rebel soldier, one of many who wanted to fight against the Japanese empire’s invasion of the Philippines in WWII. He never elaborated on his reasons why he went and joined the Huks, only that he did, because, as he said, he felt it was the right thing to do at the time.
And he recalled the time when he was caught by Japanese soldiers, and he and his comrades were arranged neatly in a row so that they could all be killed efficiently. He was kneeling on the ground, with a rifle pointed at his head. He was waiting for what probably seemed like the inevitable when the soldier shot the gun and, of all things, tripped. My grandfather swore he felt a bullet fly next to his head. He thought it was the most amazing thing.
Then chaos ensued. My grandfather realized that another group of Huks came in before the soldier could try shooting at him again. Some more fighting went on. My grandfather kept his head and ran, seeking cover. He was astonished that he managed to make it out of there alive. He could not believe his luck.
And he told me that that is the reason why he considers his life, and my dad, and uncles, and aunts, and his grandsons and his granddaughters’ lives as gifts. He was supposed to have died, and yet he didn’t.
After that story, I could never look at my grandfather the same way again. How can someone I thought was so simple have a story so wonderful and complex? I learned, once again, how people, even the ones you know, can surprise you.
I realized simplicity is an illusion. To be human, necessarily, is to be complicated.