Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for December 23rd, 2006

Do we know it’s Christmas? 15

Posted on December 23, 2006 by jimparedes

Humming in my UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes
The Philippine STAR 12/24/2006

Early on Wednesday morning, December 20, my next-door neighbor’s house burned down. Chinchin Gutierrez, an actress and my friend, woke up to fire engulfing the abode she shared with her mother. Luckily, neighbors came to the rescue and helped carry her very sick mother out of the house. Visitors who were using the studio at the back of my house immediately rushed them to the hospital. In the process of saving her mother, however, Chinchin sustained wounds and burns on her arms, legs and face.

As I write this, I am in Sydney, having just arrived from Manila where I’m still in a state of shock trying to grapple with the reality that the house beside ours – which had been there since we moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago and which had I visited on several occasions – is no more. Now reduced to ashes, the only things left are the tiles on the bathroom wall and a few standing twisted pieces of metal. Gone is the physical structure whose walls housed the memories of Chinchin’s growing years and the home that nurtured her and her mother who is sick with diabetes.

From accounts I have received, the people in the neighborhood watched with a sense of fear and loss as the flames consumed the house quickly. There was a collective feeling of horror at the sight of seeing a part of the neighborhood’s communal memories go up in smoke.

Despite the embers that were showered in the direction of my house, we were spared.

In truth, I must admit that I don’t quite know how to react when people text, call or tell me how lucky we are that our house did not burn down. I know that I am lucky but it’s hard to be gleeful about it when I am aware that my friend Chinchin and her mother have lost everything.

Five days before I left for Sydney, I was talking to another good friend, Eloisa Mathias, who was telling me about the tragedy that hit Bicol, where she comes from. The recent storm buried wide areas in mud, killing close to 2,000 people, and making it difficult for those who survived to continue living the lives they are used to. She told me of a cousin who was bitten by a rattlesnake that had been swimming in the flood waters. He died three days later because no help could arrive to save him.

A lot of tragedies have been hitting people too close to home. It has become too close for comfort. For many of us, tragedy is merely a mental concept – it only happens to other people. And so we can take our breakfast while watching the horrors in Darfur on the morning TV news, or read about the gruesome realities of crime, calamities and corruption in the newspapers as we drink our coffee.

I am reminded of an admittedly funny cartoon sketch I saw many years ago about a proverbial dumb blonde who, upon reading the headlines that screamed “Nuclear War!!” burst into tears worrying about the possible loss of her new job.

What is it about a tragedy that seems to release a feeling of unity and empathy with suffering among some, while others feel a sense of relief at being lucky because they were not the ones hit?

In the song Do They Know It’s Christmas, there is a line that goes, “Well, tonight, thank God, it’s them instead of you,” which has always made me feel uncomfortable. It highlights feelings of separateness and alienation that hit me severely.

While I completely understand the sentiments of those who are spared from suffering, at the same time I feel there is something in it that is reflective of an inner poverty. It comes from a point of view that looks at life as an “either/or” situation wherein someone must lose for another to gain. It seems to imply that I am okay, only because I am not the one suffering.

When I feel united with those who suffer, I feel sad but better at the same time. Why? Because I know my own comfort zone is less sustainable because part of the bigger world it belongs to is bleeding. While that is distressing, it is also reassuring since while I suffer, I feel the empowering reality that I am part of something greater than my own skin. It is no surprise, therefore, that people who experience compassion for those who suffer are also capable of joy when others are joyful. They tune in to the larger experience of being part of humanity and not just a tiny, insignificant existence others like to call their “life.” They are one with all aspects of the human experience. There is no “other.” There is nothing outside.

I so admire people who work for Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace and other such advocacies, who see the role of their tiny lives in the greater scheme of things. In fact, their lives are not tiny and insignificant at all but are dynamic parts of a greater whole. The whole relies on them to keep the entire system that is human life running.

For this Christmas season, I have vowed to reflect further on the significance of my own life in the scheme of how the universe is unfolding, or at least how I wish it should be. I am putting myself in a terrifying and humbling but empowering place and imagining the extremely remote possibility that my birth into this world is as significant as the birth of a Child 2,000 years ago.

Why? Because I feel we honor God when we attempt to think great of ourselves. “All these and more shall you do,” Jesus said. What are the ramifications of that? If that were so, how much of my own life have I wasted in not fulfilling my mission orders?

Or maybe I should think smaller so I do not get too overwhelmed by what I sometimes think is a latent “messianic complex.” But I know I can make a difference in the immediate reality I am involved in – the people I meet every day and those within my immediate circles who need help. All I want to do this Christmas is to ask the many suffering people I meet if they do know that it’s Christmas, and help them have a good one.
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