HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes
Sunday, August 26, 2007
I recently watched an excellent documentary called The Rise and Fall of the People’s Church about the charismatic leader Jim Jones and his followers who, from out of nowhere, built a large, powerful socio-political-religious organization in California, and a few years later, committed mass suicide in Guyana.
The documentary showed how the gifted Jim Jones easily connected with people and made so many want to follow him anywhere he went. This man had the ability to get people to devote their every waking hour to him and to turn over not just their time and talent but their riches and wealth as well to the People’s Church that he founded.
As I watched Jim Jones as a young, vibrant leader and listened to testimonies given by ex-members of the cult about how they were so easily drawn to him, I could not help but think that at one point, this man must have come from a good, pure place in his heart. He may have really wanted to help and liberate people. But as the documentary unfolded, it became clear that all the adulation and awe directed at him by his adoring congregation engulfed every good intention he may have had, and enticed the megalomaniac inside him to take over his charismatic personality.
And, horror of horrors, even as his followers testified that they had begun to see cracks in the wall, so to speak — such as inappropriate sexual relations with followers, extreme dogmatism, staged healings, drug use, paranoia, his penchant for maintaining control by making people feel guilty, and his insatiable need to address his followers almost 24 hours a day — no one stood up and hollered. Such was the power of this man. He could make his followers surrender their will to him in exchange for any attention he would throw in their direction.
I think I know some of the feelings Jim Jones went through. In a very small way, I have gone through some of the highs that powerful people such as politicians and preachers experience. And even on a miniscule scale, it can be quite heady — and also destructive and instructive. In 38 years of showbiz, doing concerts and being part of big TV shows and huge rallies, I could often sense the pulse of the masses before me as my own. With the magic wand of celebrity, I found that if I wanted to, I could make them scream, applaud, jump, laugh, cry, stand, wave, give money, risk their lives, and a whole lot more.
It was intoxicating. I remember when I was younger, not being able to sleep usually after doing big concerts. I was just too high and I couldn’t rest or sleep, no matter how I tried. I marinated in the feeling of being loved, adored, worshipped and admired until morning when it wore off. Such was the effect on me of all that attention. I suppose this is a common experience of many public personalities.
I was in my early 40s when I had a memorable awakening in my spiritual journey. I was standing on stage at the Ultra before an adoring standing-room-only crowd that gave the APO a standing ovation. Amid the cheers, I stood there, with Danny and Boboy soaking it all in even though, strangely enough, I was starting to feel great dissatisfaction with the whole thing. I remember telling myself that I had to be totally out of my mind to depend on more of this as the sole key to my happiness. Sure, it was/is/will always be a great feeling to be admired by thousands of people — no question about that. But if my validation as a human being has to come from a source exclusively outside of myself, then I could be setting myself up for deep dissatisfaction and great unhappiness in a frantic and needy life.
It was at this time that I began to be more introspective, trying to know myself outside of how the world identified me — as a singer, a songwriter, an APO member, an Atenean, a Filipino, a married man, a father, writer, environmentalist, etc. It was unnerving to awaken and realize that all I knew of myself were layers of labels that had come to define me. Before all this internal questioning, I had thought and accepted all along that what the world thought I was actually did define me. But when I consciously stepped out of the participation mystique of my showbiz world and other public areas of my life, I caught a glimpse of what I could be.
I saw a free spirit, creative and expanding, with fire and breath coming from itself. It was a “me” that was self-sustaining and not needing anything or anyone. It was extremely intriguing, and wondrous and powerful at the same time.
We tend to live in denial of who we really are, and sadly, sometimes we cannot help it. The idea that we are what the world has defined us to be is so prevalent. The forces of outside expectations, commerce, and our own lack of self-awareness make us depend on the world for our own identity and worth. Thus, every day we are defined by how white our shirt should be, the brand of deodorant we use or the soda we drink, our citizenship, our gender, our earning power, our status in the community. We are constantly “Coked,” “Jollibeed,” “Rexona-ed,” “Red Horsed” into submission to an identity that is shallow and bogus.
Jim Jones, who may have started with good intentions, may have, at a certain point, committed the mistake of “conditioning” his self-worth on the adulation which he constantly sought. When that could no longer cut it for him, he turned to other “kicks” such as drugs, sex, and other highs, and his followers did the same. They had no identity other than what was validated by Jim Jones over and over again. They completely denied what was inside them, and looked for self-worth outside.
For a long time, I could not understand the line from the famous song that went, “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all…” Isn’t love all about sacrifice and suffering, of losing oneself for others? I thought it was the height of selfishness to love one’s self until I awakened to the truth that the first given in being alive should be to be who we really are.
To be defined by who we love is to be validated from the outside. We need to be simply, unconditionally, who we are. And, as to losing ourselves for others as the highest expression of love, we must bear in mind that we cannot lose what we have not found.