Some thoughts on fame

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 27, 2013 – 12:00am

I have walked among the famous for more than 40 years. Some were famous momentarily and were gone quickly while others were famous for quite a long while. Some were instantly famous and stayed for a long time, and there are those who worked their way to fame for years and lingered there.

Fame confers on a person some kind of royalty status. Everywhere you go, you are recognized, sometimes even adored. People actually gaze at you approvingly. You can cause a minor, sometimes even major commotion, depending on how well-known you are.

I have been famous, in varying degrees and depending on the occasion. When I was with APO, we were sought after, followed, praised, adulated by record buyers, concert-goers, radio-listeners who loved the songs we wrote and sang. There were also the TV viewers who watched us faithfully and supported us by writing fan mail, and shrieking when they saw us in our concerts and personal appearances. We were, well, idolized.

There are so-called perks that go with being famous and idolized — money, privilege, respect, and the feeling that one belongs to some kind of royalty. But I am most uncomfortable with fame and the adulation that goes with it. This is primarily because of my egalitarian, middle-class upbringing. My mother always reminded us that although we were special in her eyes, we were really just like everyone else. I could never reconcile my feelings about fame with my mother’s voice in my head. Why should I be singled out, be treated specially and adored just because I may have done a few good things under the spotlight?

Another reason was, I was quite insecure about my skills as a songwriter, singer and performer. Every time anyone came up to me and said how great a certain song I wrote or show we did was, I would smile and say thank you. But inside me, I wondered if I deserved such praise. Was this person just flattering me? I often asked that of myself. A built-in self-deprecating attitude instantly burst my bubbles before they could even come up.

But it would be a lie to say I did not enjoy the applause we would get during concerts and the good reviews for our records, even if it took me almost 20 years to accept it without the “guilt” of being undeserving.

How do fans choose whom to idolize? There is a “play,” or what is called a “participation mystique” that happens between performer and audience, idol and fan, leader and follower, and it goes something like this: a performer makes a call to an audience to watch him or her at a certain time and venue, promising to take the audience to a psychological state where they feel good, or a place where they have never been. In that state, they will experience surprise and delight in varying levels. Surprise and delight can be delivered in many ways. Athletes and physical performers, for example, wow people by pushing their physical limitations and seemingly defy gravity with grace. Musical performers evoke deep feelings and emotions through song. Magicians leave you wondering how they defy reality. Great orators and politicians will mesmerize and transport you to some ideal place. Religious leaders and priests perform rituals that evoke the presence of God.

Metaphysically speaking, the “performer” who can make you forget your own limitations as a human being and demonstrate a magnificence that brings you to a sublime state of transcendence, is a successful one. And the performer will enjoy fame as long as he can do this consistently and keep his audience engaged. When a performer stops delivering, the participation mystique ends.

In my experience, fame has been a blessing and a bane. My kids have certainly enjoyed some privileges for being my offspring. However, while perks and opportunities may have opened up for them, being the rugged individuals that they are, their connection to me has also made them work harder to come into their own.

I have lent my name to many commercial ventures. I have done the same for more noble causes such as saving the environment, damning the dictatorship, promoting OPM and clean elections, supporting certain candidates, promoting RH, etc. Those times when I did, I put my relative fame and influence to some good use, and not for the self-aggrandizement it is mostly cut out for.

We’ve heard it said that to whom much is given, much is expected. I have often wondered how much responsibility famous people should shoulder for being famous. After all, while a beauty queen speaks of world peace and harmony, she is not expected to sit down with Al Queda and the US government to initiate reconciliation.

I find it quite funny, no, abhorrent actually, when people who are on the other side of political and social issues, for example, express disappointment and threaten to withdraw adulation because I am not on their side. They use their fan status as a weapon to hostage my support and force me to behave a certain way. They must feel empowered because they think that since they made me famous, they can take it all away, at will. In the process though, their arguments weaken and what takes place is a pathetic attempt at power play which descends into name-calling. When such things happen, my usual respect for ideological adversaries quickly dissipates.

Most famous people I know would not be affected by fans who withhold or withdraw their support or admiration in situations like this. What affects them more is stalkers. If you want to sow fear in the heart of a famous person, say something like, “I like you so much I am so obsessed with you. I know where you live and I know you were wearing your favorite running shoes for three days last week.” Or say something like, “I love you the way Chapman loved John Lennon.” Then watch them really get worried.

The public will want to run your life if you let them. They feel entitled to do so since they “made” you. But I wonder why some famous people get away with outrageous things while others do not. Paul McCartney spent 10 days in a Japanese jail for drug use years ago. John Lennon was cursed for saying candidly that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. Miley Cyrus shocked parents of teenage girls with her audacious performances. And lately, there’s Freddie Aguilar who has earned the ire of some for his politically incorrect choice of who to fall in love with.

I have been a recognizable person for too long. In truth, if all this disappeared tomorrow, I would not cry over it. My ambition is no longer as great as it used to be. But I would be grateful if you took time to listen to my new songs, read my writings, watch me in concert or attend my workshops.

While I have admittedly made great strides in my career, I still have this discomfort in being “famous.” I never liked being called a “star.” From Day One to the present, I have carefully chosen my words when I refer to people who like what I do. In interviews, I rarely call them fans. I prefer to call them friends, or my audience who enjoy my music. It feels more right. I am not someone unreachable “up there,” and they are not “down there” looking up at me.

As a performer, I will continue to try and surprise and delight my audience and I hope they continue to get a kick out of it. But when the show is over, I want to get back to my real human size and dimension. Maybe that’s why I enjoy Australia where my celebrity status is practically nil. As an Italian proverb says, “When the game is over, both pawn and king go back to the same box.”

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.

The call

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 13, 2013 – 12:00am

What if God talked to you? Would you answer? What if he asked you to do something, would you really do it?”

I once posted those questions on Twitter and a majority of respondents said they would answer and obey whatever God bid them to do. I smiled to myself, upon seeing how easily most of them gave their answer. I felt they probably didn’t give it much thought and I wondered how many of them would actually respond positively if God actually called.

I’ve been thinking about this question lately. I must confess I’ve detected “callings” at certain points in my life. I have ignored some and responded to others.

I do not want to get into biblical accounts about those who claimed to answer God’s call, like Moses or Noah. I do not want this article to lean in any way towards any Christian group’s understanding of what God’s call or will is.

“The call” is something that happens to everyone and I want to focus on the down-to-earth human aspect of how people in the modern world respond to it, or if they still hear God (or whatever they want to call the Source) talk to them.

I find it interesting that Pope Benedict stepped down because, he said, God told him to. I know he is a man of discernment and has spent much of his life interpreting the Catholic faith. I can believe that he can determine a real call from a false one. Some cynical people may see his stepping down for less divine reasons and compulsions. But I will grant him his claim and take his word for it.

David Capra, an Australian writer on the art scene, wrote about a woman named Elizabeth who claimed to have been called by God to fulfill a certain mission years ago. The call was simple: God supposedly told her to ride trains and shake hands with people she would meet and spread the love of God, through that simple human contact.

Capra writes about meeting Elizabeth and seeing her in action.

“I will never look at a train trip the same way after my evening with Elizabeth. Elizabeth believes God has commissioned her to shake people’s hands and offer her hand to entire carriages of people. It was pretty captivating witnessing it all unfold before me. It was like theater, the train transformed, opening up potential for a very ordinary yet thrilling human exchange. People responded in all sorts of ways from laughter, bewilderment, to anger. In a recent phone conversation, Elizabeth said, ‘Please let people know that I am congratulating them for making it this far, because life can be hard.’”

I imagine that when Elizabeth heard “the call,” she must have struggled with it. She must have felt in her heart that the voice she heard was authentic. And that was the problem. The call must have also seemed ridiculous at first, and illogical. And it could have been easily construed as silly. And yet she developed the courage to follow it and she has been shaking hands with people for years.

I have no doubt that everyone is called by God to do something. It may not always be dramatic, such as saving the world or things of that sort, or doing something that will create a visible impact that everyone will notice. Sometimes, it can be a simple call to get married and raise a family, or take on a certain profession, or befriend someone, or perform an act of kindness. It can be anything. But the call will always demand courage and faith. It is each person’s discernment that will help him or her determine what he or she is being asked to do.

We all make deals with God. I know people who promise to alter their behavior if certain favors are granted. I am guilty of doing that quite often. And, regrettably, I do not always fulfill my end of the bargain, even when I get what I ask for.

Speaking of which, last week, I did my very first concert in Sydney as a solo artist. The project had a rough start. It went through three producers before it finally got off the ground.

In the last two weeks before the concert, the production hit big snags that discouraged our optimism and enthusiasm. While maintaining a go-go-go attitude on the outside to keep the enterprise in high spirits, I began to doubt the viability of the project.

In the midst of my doubt, I prayed silently and asked God to use the outcome of the concert as a sign to let me know if I should continue performing solo, or just quit and retire altogether.

I asked God for a clear sign if He wanted me to retire and do something else. I was ready to accept that painful prospect. If the concert were a failure, I would see it as a sign to stop performing. But if, by some miracle, it turned out to be successful despite the problems, I would continue to do what I’ve always loved to do.

APO had a great run of 41 years. Was I being stubborn and not reading the handwriting on the wall? Maybe I had run my course. Showbiz is a young people’s world. Was I in denial?

Was it time for me to go full-time into teaching, writing and other stuff? Was it time for a total sea change and plunge my energies into something else? If I was being blind, I prayed that God would please give me a jolt so I could see things clearly. I kept all this to myself.

But when concert day came, what transpired was a dream come true. Everything about it exceeded our expectations. It turned out to be a roaring success, both critically and commercially. Everyone, including my guests, producers, sponsors and audience, were more than happy. I had a great time and felt that my life work was validated.

Even if the cynic in me could “explain” in hindsight how the concert had a successful outcome, I have a positive feeling that my questions were divinely answered. Am I reading too much into the situation? Some may argue that yes, I am. But then again, maybe I am not.

Regardless, I felt that my prayer was answered. I trusted my intuition. I was not asking for any material gain. In fact, I had laid everything on the line. I was ready to give up something I loved to do if that was “the call.” I asked for direction and clarity, and I feel in my heart that I got it.

I am not a religious person. I will confess that there are a lot of things about religion I am not comfortable with. But I have always been spiritual and my engagement with a God I have been trying to understand has been a life-long affair.

Yes, I will continue pursuing my “calling,” my pursuit of my musical passion. I do not truly understand the whys and hows of divine messages, but I feel assured that it came. I was not merely talking to myself. I asked for it, and I got an answer.

Thank you, God.

Is there a God? An afterlife? A hell? Why are we here?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated October 6, 2013 – 12:00am

There are enigmatic questions in life that we are hard-put to find answers to. They touch on philosophical, spiritual and psychological themes that bring up fundamental questions about meaning, which, I am sure, at some point in our lives, we dared ask.

We asked with great earnestness but we never got definite, authoritative answers that should keep us quiet and content forever. We probably never will. And the answers we get seem to change over time, or perhaps it is our understanding that changes. I am not sure.

I have been asked many times what I think are the answers to some of the hard questions in life. By attempting to answer them, I know I will end up baring my spiritual soul and also my biases. I also run the risk of ticking off some readers who might find my views fit for burning.

So, dear reader, please remember that these thoughts are mine and I am in no way imposing them on anyone. And they are my answers, for now. You can stop reading now if you do not wish to be disturbed or challenged on this beautiful Sunday.

1) Is there a God?

I do not wish to answer this with anything I have learned in school or from any book I have read. I have always looked at this question as something that can’t be answered by cut-and-dried dogma. When I was younger, I was content to accept the Church’s teachings without question. But growing up makes one discover things for oneself.

I now feel that my honest answer can only come from direct experiences I have had with this question. These are the fleeting moments when I felt or intuited the answer.

Have I stayed up at night troubled, abandoned, desperate and feeling like there is no one out there listening? Yes, I have. So did I sense a God during those moments? There were times I did and there were times I did not. But when I did, it felt like a presence of love that wrapped me close and assured me that everything would be all right.

I have had more experiences in the past 15 years where I felt the intense presence of every living thing radiating in unity. Beyond everything resides a Great Unseen. During moments of what seem like True Seeing, I would sense the presence of something I wish to call God, in a blade of grass, a block of stone, the whispering wind, a person passing by. I would feel the perfect presence of the world just as it is, with its joys and sorrows, and I would be enveloped in an extremely sacred and complete experience of what I call God.

I am everything and everything is inside of me. And I have had that feeling of being wide-awake with the wonderful certainty that there is nothing at all, that is not God. The sacred, the profane, the paradox, the uncertainty — all of life itself is God manifesting.

I have had two kinds of experiences with God — a personal one and a transpersonal one. This personal God I know and understand is Someone who helps me get what I want and need. It gives me the support I need to tide me over. It gives me my “daily bread.” My personal God is a salvific God.

My transpersonal experience of God, however, is something else. This God appears when “no one is home,” meaning, my ego or “self” is not trying to run the show that is my life. I slip into a state where an experience of total presence of God happens. I am “lost” yet “found” in the Oneness, in the ever-present scheme of things that plays out in life.

Everything is sacred, including what seems profane. God’s hand is everywhere. A common thread that runs between my two types of experiences of God is that in both the personal and transpersonal, God is expansive and loving.

2) Is there an afterlife?

Religion will tell us there is, but some scientists will argue that there is no proof of life after death at the moment. But I have had glimpses of timelessness and eternity, ironically within the field of time and space called the here and now which is ever fleeting. And each time I do, I sense a consciousness that has no beginning and no end. I feel quite strongly that my own consciousness is a mere satellite of something infinitely bigger that has always been there and always will. I am certain it will overcome death, and my own consciousness will return and fuse with the Source, like a drop of water returning to the ocean.

3) Is there a hell?

I cannot believe there is a hell, at least not one where our souls will go to rot as punishment for being bad. If there is a heaven, I believe we will all end up there due to God’s unconditional love. “Unconditional” means without conditions. What is unconditional love if it means you have to be good or believe certain things or be subscribed to a certain religion to get to God? It’s a contradiction.

God is Love. That’s what I understand. And yes, we choose love mostly, or try to choose it because it is our nature to do so. We are impelled towards it. When we choose otherwise, we act contrary to our nature, brought about by self-will.

But yes, I believe there is a hell, and we create it here on earth with our choices, both conscious and unconscious. These choices are the fear-based ones that do not open us to greater love but constrict us for fear of being rejected.

This hell on earth ends when we die.

4) So why are we here? What, then, is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is up to us to define. For some it can mean to build a career, to love, to amass wealth, power, etc. To me, the meaning of life keeps changing. There was a time when it meant work, family, etc. I used to think the meaning of life was to change the world into some ideal place. I still do sometimes. This is a lingering theme in my life.

These days, I think the meaning of life can be found in awakening to the “is-ness” of things, and grasping the truth of the world without the confusing artifice of intellectualism or any imposed standard of correctness, but simply opening up to it with fresh intuition and senses, as simply as one can. It’s like the way the little boy in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” saw through the clutter of hypocrisy. Only a “beginner’s mind” (to borrow Roshi Suzuki’s term) can be as fresh and as direct as that.

This tells me that we should probably cut through the B.S. and get to the creative power we all have, the original blessing we were all born with.

Therein, methinks, lies the mother lode of meanings.

So why are we here? It is simply to experience and be One with the great wonder, love and power of the Spirit behind all of life, and carry it with us in our every waking moment.