Suffering binds us together

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 20, 2013 – 12:00am

It started like an ordinary day in Cebu and Bohol last Oct. 15. But a few hours into the day, a big earthquake struck and not too long after, both were declared as provinces in a state of calamity.

Even though we know that earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and the like happen, it is still a shock to experience them. One is immediately humbled at how small and helpless one can actually be. How can the state of things be shaken and changed so quickly and dramatically? “Just like that,” as people describe it while in shock and awe. All it took was over a minute of tremors to transform these two places from beautiful, vibrant tourist attractions to calamity areas.

All this makes one think of the impermanence of things. Even if I have written about the topic of impermanence many times — about how everything is always in a state of flux — it seems like a fresh subject each time it happens this dramatically. That’s because we are forced beyond just an intellectual appreciation of it. We may entertain disastrous situations and scenarios in our minds but there is nothing like the real thing to give us a big jolt of reality.

Looking at the world around us, we can see so many things happening that no one could have imagined just two decades ago. The most powerful country in the world, the USA, is suffering economically and almost defaulted again on its payments. The Philippines is being looked at as a bright spot in the world economy. Cases are being filed against really powerful people in our country. Climate change is undoubtedly upon us and the geographical state of planet earth is rapidly changing.

Who would have thought these would be happening?

Everything in fact really changes. There is nothing permanent in this world. “What is now” is always becoming “what was.” The wheel is always spinning, sometimes predictably but oftentimes out of control.

The human quest to create order and civilization was always about how to control life and the world around us. It still is. We build human systems of beliefs that we apply to governance, religions, morality, sciences and philosophies to be able to make some sense of everything. It is our way of feeling secure, assured that there is predictability to life. And because we can forecast events, we can plan and build our lives.

But as it stands now, it still seems that most calamities and disasters are totally oblivious to the carefully laid-out plans of men. Against the wishes of nature, all these schemes and layers of protection and predictability we have built are not always reliable and will not always deliver us to safety. We may be able to forecast storms, disasters and the like to a certain degree, but we humans do not as yet hold all the cards to control or understand nature. And I don’t think we ever will completely. Mother Nature will always have the last say on how the world should be.

So what are we to do when we can’t rely on our systems and knowledge base to spare us from suffering?

I have observed that when people find themselves suddenly helpless, vulnerable and in danger, they turn to other people. There is a switch that turns on, which makes you notice the persons around you. Suffering opens something inside both the sufferer and those capable or in a position to help.

Perhaps it is the fear and fascination of something like a disaster which no one can fully comprehend that makes people band together. Somehow a calamity makes people seek others. The suffering of others arouses it. One comprehends a human-to-human link. The urge to ease the burden of those suffering is awakened.

Here in Sydney I suddenly found myself riveted to the unfolding story. Like many others, I checked the news and social media for any information about the earthquakes.

One might logically argue that all this connection stuff I talk about is because I know people from Cebu and Bohol and I have emotional ties to friends there. And that’s what is arousing all this concern. Yes, of course. That is surely a factor. But we can’t ignore the fact that stories about suffering in other parts of the world also affect and move us in the same way.

Why are people drawn to stories about Malala, for example? Isn’t it because we were drawn to the inhumanity she suffered? Whether the suffering is in Syria, Pakistan, Sydney or wherever, once we decide to look and listen, we are awakened to our common humanity.

But it is not just suffering that binds us together. There is also what is called “greatness of spirit” that equally rivets us.

I was once a member of the board of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, an award-giving body that recognizes and supports people and institutions that make a difference in many countries. In choosing the awardees, we were required to read tons of data and information about the nominees. It is not an easy task to sift through papers that stack up to almost three feet high to choose the deserving candidates. I often found myself up till 4 a.m. reading about lives of obscure people from distant lands fascinated by the compassion, courage and generosity they have towards their fellowmen.

These are people who risk their lives while doing community service in the hope of changing the trajectory of the future to something better. They have that greatness of spirit, that bigness of heart, the selflessness that erases the boundaries between them and others.

Malala’s response to adversity is also an example of this greatness of spirit. For her, it may have started as a personally painful experience. But because this barbaric act done to her drew a massively sympathetic universal response, her misfortune turned into an inspiring story that galvanized her courage, precocious wisdom and fortitude.

Albert Einstein once observed that most lives are lived in separateness and isolation from others. This he feels is an “optical illusion of consciousness,” which is contrary to his belief that we are all integrated and part of the whole universe. He says, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

For those who are suffering because of the earthquakes and other tragedies that have beset us, and for those who are moved, this is a golden opportunity to unleash the greatness of spirit that can inspire and transform pain into action. Compassion already resides in us all.

Let us turn the loss into a triumph. This is a call not just for community action but a call to experience our spiritual oneness. Let us awaken the compassion and let it move us all into action.

Let’s do this.

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