There was no way to tell whether the old fellow thought he recognized me or would have begun the conversation with anyone who happened by. Nor, really, did it matter. Our meeting outside the store on one of the warm days week before last began with his question. “What do you think of that tomb of Jesus they say they found?”
It was the kind of thing that in a city would cause a person to act as if he hadn’t heard, but that here catches one’s interest. The fact was, I did have a view on the claim by a Canadian reporter financed by the filmmaker James Cameron who had claimed that the tomb of Jesus and his family had been discovered in Jerusalem. But when someone you do not know approaches you in such a way, it makes sense to let that person offer the first opinion.
“Oh, I dunno,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I think they’re playing with fire,” said the old man. He was wearing bib overalls and a striped, railroad-style cap and appeared to be well past 70, though I’m not a good judge of age. Over the next half hour I’d learn bits and pieces about him: He farmed for most of his life, “t’other side of Albany,” but “moved to town” when his wife’s mother’s health began to decline. His son either works or did work the farm — this part wasn’t clear — but his heart apparently is elsewhere.
“Playing with fire?” I asked.
“There are some things we’re not supposed to know about.”
This struck a chord with me. I’ve had a running argument for close to 25 years with a close friend who believes that given enough time the human race will discover and understand everything. My view is that we are to the Universe as an ant coming out of the anthill is upon espying a human: no matter how hard he tries, the ant simply will never know much about human beings, because the ant lacks the capacity. If we fall down dead next to the anthill, the ant will find out all it needs to know about us as a food item; if we are a child and stick a firecracker in the anthill, the ant (or its surviving hymenopterous relatives) will learn something different about us. Both lessons are useful, but we’d like to think they are not a complete or even adequate summary of the nature of humanity.
The old fellow seemed to misinterpret my expression.
“I suppose you’re one who thinks that science is the answer to everything. There are some things I don’t want to know. It … diminishes them.” I was a little surprised by the word. “If you know how it works, there’s no wonder to it anymore.”
It reminded me of a passage from Mark Twain, where he described the Mississippi River after learning to be a pilot. What had once been a thing of beauty to him, he mused, had now become a series of clues, of information to be used. He had gained something useful, but lost something precious.
The old man continued. “If you’re a believer, you are supposed to have faith in things that you can’t prove. That’s the difference between believing and knowing.” With this he smiled, as if he thought he had just pronounced a great truth. Which he had.
His wife emerged from the store, carrying a small bag. “Are you bending this young man’s ear?” she asked, in an affectionate tone, not a scolding one. “I hope he hasn’t been a bother,” she smiled at me.
“Not at all,” I said.
And I thought a little about what he’d said, how he had described faith, not just religious faith but all faith and its enemy, suspicion. That couple walking away was the picture of trust. I thought of the times I’d doubted friends or significant others. No matter how it turned out I’d been the one who lost faith, who broke trust, just by suspecting. The old fellow, in a few minutes’ time, had given me a glimpse of wisdom and contentment.
Pretty heavy thoughts from a chance meeting on a gorgeous day. But what a good conversation it was.
I went on about my business, but couldn’t shake the old man’s words from my mind. Faith, I decided, is a lot like a cat: you can dissect it and learn a lot about it, but the price is that you don’t have a cat anymore.
He had been a farmer, the old fellow had told me, and he still was, though maybe he didn’t know it.
Now he had planted a seed of a different sort.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.