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HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 11, 2010 12:00 AM
Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology, observed that what is true in the morning of one’s life may no longer be true in the afternoon. Our views, values, attitudes and preferences understandably change. What may seem crucially and achingly important when one is young may become less so, or even not at all, later in life. Things temper out. Raging fevers die down. Causes we used to be ready to die for when we were younger become less compelling as we age.
In my early days of Zen practice, my sensei (teacher) asked me to mull over the question: How do you know when something is appropriate? It baffled me then and to this day, I continue to ask myself this same question before I act on anything. Sometimes I apply the question to a situation that is asking for a moral response. Sometimes, the question asks me to make a wise, reasoned response to an issue, or even age-appropriate behavior when it asks me if I am acting my age and not my shoe size.
Just asking this question can solve many problems and put a kind of order in a person’s life. It can also make one come to terms with a lot of situations. Clearly, this question posed by my sensei was meant to go beyond situations of social etiquette or political correctness.
For example, in terms of personal appearance, I have decided that regardless of media’s cult of youth, there is nothing wrong with the fact that people do age, and so I will not overly concern myself with my thinning hair, or my slowing body. This means I will not try to defy age with botox shots, and neither will I ever wear a wig or anything meant to make me appear younger than I am. I accept myself as a man in his late 50s who, like everyone else, is growing older by the day. That, to me, is an appropriate response to this situation.
This question of appropriateness can come in handy in a heated argument. By simply asking it, we can stay cool, and avoid flying off the handle and saying things that we may regret later on. We become more detached and rational, and so our responses can be more measured and, well, appropriate.
Apriest I know once posed a situation to prove a point. He asked how we would react if we entered a department store where everything was wrongly priced. A can of sardines is priced, say, at P150,000 while a diamond ring is being sold for P5. A pair of slippers would cost P80,000 while a Rolex watch would sell for P9.99. We would sense that something is wrong, of course. His point was that, often, we do not accord the appropriate value or attention to things and people in our lives. We devalue the important things and are blinded by and give more importance to stuff of little or dubious value. When we do this, we are acting ‘inappropriately’.
So what does it mean to act appropriately? How do we know when we are responding appropriately to a situation?
We all know the metaphor about throwing pearls before swine. This figure of speech implies that in certain situations, there is a severe disconnect between the giver and the receiver. The giver confers something of value to those who have no way or are incapable of appreciating the value of what is being given. The gift, it would seem, is inappropriate.
But there are times when we find ourselves in situations where the only thing we can offer is something that will be hardly understood, much less accepted. We are, in a sense, contextually out of place. I can think of many people I know who have joined elections with lots of idealism but discovered soon enough that no matter how much they pushed the message, or regardless of their compassion for their countrymen and their pure intention in wanting to serve them, they have not succeeded in being elected. The good guys often do not make it. Instead, the bad ones more often do.
Jesus faced the same situation. His message was not something the people of His time were ready to accept. One may argue that even people in our present time are not ready to accept it. This opens up the question of whether idealism or even noble intentions have an appropriate place in many areas of life.
But maybe my Zen teacher was asking me to think more deeply about appropriateness than the examples I am giving.
Is it right that one must change one’s message to be “accepted”? Or, to put it another way, does being popular and acceptable and having a message everyone likes to hear make one “true”? But what if it is something you yourself do not believe in? Appropriateness is not only about political correctness.
I would like to posit that the idealist, regardless of whether he has an audience or not or whether anyone is listening, is in the place where he is needed and, in the wider scheme of things, he/she is always in the right place.
Why? Because one cannot help but be one’s self. You are what you are. Can a tiger change its stripes? Can a dog behave like a cat? When I was a kid, I often listened to and memorized a record about Tubby the Tuba. The audio story, which stressed the need to Be Yourself, pointed out that “an octopus would look quite ridiculous knitting sweaters at the bottom of the sea. So, be yourself!” That’s a message that is hard to forget.
In today’s world, being true to one’s self is one of the hardest things to do. Life pulls us in every which way with demands on our time, resources, concerns and emotional investments. Gone is the simplicity of the idea of a straight line that connects two dots. Too many conditions enter the picture and change how we must proceed from one point to another, from having a dream to accomplishing it without being pulled astray by illusionary points along the way.
When I am confused, as I am sometimes about what to do with my life after APO ends this May, I remind myself that I am a creative, an artist, and I must proceed from there. I must accept that as the first given. And that means that I must do the stuff that my being an artist-creator is supposed to do. It has always been so since the morning of my life, and even now, as I approach late afternoon.
I feel this sense of an expanded identity when I create, write, do workshops, teach, sing, perform, meditate, or when I just open myself to creative space. That’s when I know that I am in the time and place and situation where I am meant to be.
I am behaving appropriately!
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This is a one-day workshop is happening on May 2, from 1 to 7 p.m., at 113 B. Gonzales st., Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Seminar fee is P3,500.
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