I was young and inexperienced, so the impressions made by this unusual incident were especially deep. I was assigned as a missionary to a little-known island in the South Pacific in 1955. Coming from America, my first impressions were two—the natural beauty of these islands and the apparent poverty of the people.
Slowly I began to learn the native language, adjust to the native food, and fit into the unhurried pace of living. The heat seemed at times unbearable and the mosquitoes vicious, as though they preferred the taste of hinehina (white) blood.
As I became more acquainted with the islanders and their language, food, and customs, I became more fully aware of the real poverty (in relative terms) in which they lived. It seemed irreconcilable. Why should we have so much in America and they have so little here? I could not at that time perceive the great spiritual blessings they had.
One day gave way to another with little change in the village routine. It would rain fiercely and then the sun would shine just as intensely. The diet of fish and breadfruit was almost unchanged from day to day. The oneness and the unity of the sun and the sea, the lagoon, and the soft laughter of those beautiful brown-skinned people seemed to melt into a covering of quiet and peace.
Then one day excitement and change arrived! A strange boat was working its way into the harbor. Hurrah for something different! The whole island was soon down on the seashore looking at one of the most beautiful sailing yachts I have ever seen.
Quietly, as if in slow motion, a crewman threw an anchor into the waiting lagoon. It did not appear even to make a splash, as though to refrain from disturbing the beauty of the setting. It was nearly dusk. The light from the setting sun silhouetted that sleek shape, its sails furled against the backdrop of deep blue waters and emerald green islands. Golden shafts of color painted all around in unbelievably vivid hues, as though framing the whole picture for eternity.
Silently the crew rolled out deep red carpets on the freshly scrubbed deck, and then the master emerged in his crisp white “tropics” to survey the situation. By now there were canoes all around as curious islanders naturally wanted to be a part of this experience, this change.
My assignment was to a little flock of about 50 Church members, most of whom were caught up in the excitement. They soon brought back reports, and even though I was young and inexperienced, it did not take very long to realize what was happening.
The man was a millionaire from overseas, cruising the world. He wanted to trade for food and water, and he wanted girls. There was liquor on board and a real swinging time for those who would accept his invitation.
I counseled my little flock to stay away. Most did, but some did not. The wealthy adventurer stayed for a few days until he filled his wants. Then he announced he would leave before noon the following day. Some of the faithful members pleaded, “Could we not go out just before he leaves, just to see the boat?” I agreed that at 10:00 the next morning we would briefly look at the yacht.
When we got there, it was even more magnificent than I had pictured. Evidence of the previous night’s activities was still being cleared away, and preparations were being made to raise anchor and take sail. We spent a few moments in wonder and awe, astonished at the beauty of the deep mahogany paneling, the rich bronze fittings, the lustre of the freshly painted surfaces, and the gleaming white of the hull as it lapped quietly at the deep blue lagoon.
The owner, nearly sober, waved good-bye, and we returned to shore. As we pulled the dugout canoe onto the sandy beach, I turned again to see the white form move toward the horizon. I thought of the millionaire in his white “tropics,” having had his fill, comfortable with his well-stocked cupboards and expert crew, with his money and his power. He seemed to have everything he wanted.
Then I looked at the men who had brought me to shore: no shoes, shirts of rags, tattered valas tied with coconut sennit around their waists. I looked past them to the village. I saw the smoke from the morning’s cooking twisting lazily into the air, heard the monotonous sound of tapa being beaten, and felt the heaviness of the overhead sun as it filtered through the palm trees. I watched the men slowly walk to their gardens and heard the laughter of naked children as they chased the scrawny dogs.
Suddenly the oppressiveness of island life with so little opportunity for change struck me as being grossly unfair. I turned again to gaze at the yacht, now receding into the distance. The contrast was so great as to be almost unbelievable. My heart cried out, “Unfair! Unfair! These poor people—look at them—and you—look at you!”
I returned to the group, and we trudged up the shore to the village. Then one of the older men turned to me and said softly in his native tongue, “I am very sad. I feel very sorry.”
“Well,” I interrupted, “I am very sad, and I feel very sorry too. It just isn’t fair, is it?”
“No,” he continued, “it really isn’t fair. I feel so sorry for him, for he will never be happy.”
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“You, you feel sorry for him? He won’t be happy? What are you talking about?”
My mind was groping to come to a sense of reality of what was being said. This man with nothing saying he was sorry for that man with everything! My immature mind was spinning, trying to interpret words, feelings, and relationships.
But he continued: “I feel so sorry for him. He will never be happy for he seeks only for his own pleasure, not to help others. Yet we know that happiness comes from helping others. All he will do is sail around the world seeking happiness, hoping others will bring happiness to him. But they cannot. He will never find it for he has not learned to help others. He has too much money, too many luxuries. Oh, I feel so sorry for him.”
I looked at the wrinkled brown body of the old man. His teeth were gone, his hair was white, and his skin was leather; but his eyes were soft, his voice quiet, and his countenance immaculate.
I can never forget his powerful words: “I feel sorry for him. He will never be happy. He hasn’t learned to help others.”
Years have passed, but occasionally, as I see proud people closed up in their sleek new cars or sense my own temporary unwillingness to help others, I close my eyes and see a beautiful yacht moving toward the horizon and turn and see an old man with a wrinkled brown body, white hair, and skin of leather and listen as his soft eyes penetrate mine and his toothless mouth moves and his spirit explains: “I feel very sorry. He will never be happy. He hasn’t learned to help others.”