Down from the hill

Down from the hill

Down to the world go I

Remembering still

How the bright Blue Eagles fly’

— Ateneo Graduation Song

These words should be familiar to anyone who has studied at the Ateneo, or has seen a basketball game involving the school team, or has attended an Ateneo function. In my case, these words are etched in my heart. It is a song I have sung many times. One of the most memorable moments was during my college graduation three decades ago. I remember the image in my mind: I was a knight and I was leaving the castle on the hill to perform the mission assigned to me.

Through the years, the theme of this hymn has played out in my life. There is something suggestively quixotic about it, to be sure. I used to imagine the knight in my mind wearing the armor of St. Ignatius, the founding saint and guiding spirit of the Jesuit Order. As a knight, I was to descend to the real world and battle the evil therein.

Through the years, the operative word “battle” has metamorphosed into other encounters such as “confront,” “change,” “deal,” “live with,” and at times, even “accept.” The word “evil” has also changed into a range of options including “imperfection,” “the oppressors,” “the real world,” “the practical,” “the way things are,” etc. Nothing, it seems, is permanent. Not even our ideals.

In a way, that is what life does to us. We are born full of ideals and concepts of how perfect things should be and then reality comes in, gives us a shove and changes a lot of what we believe.

Throughout life, we constantly assess how the things we believe in really ought to play out for us. Are we true to our beliefs? How true? What do they really mean in the real world? Is it practical to believe in them and live them out? Are we ready to pay the price?

I have tried to answer these questions and each time I have felt a varying intensity and conflicting conclusions about them. For sure, I have put my life on the line for some of the ideals I felt were important. I have turned my back on financial opportunities because they did not jibe with my core values (even if I admit I fretted about those decisions). I have contributed time and effort to what others would regard as lost causes.

But admittedly, I have also turned my back on my beliefs and given way many times to weakness because I felt there was also something wrong with rigidity and inflexibility when the situation called for more openness.

It often strikes me how Jesus, a holy man, seemed to have been more comfortable in the company of tax cheats, prostitutes and other low-lifes than with the self-proclaimed keepers of the faith in His time. Buddha felt that unhappiness and pain were the key issues that need to be dealt with. There is an African saying that fish cannot survive in pure water. All these seem to suggest that the task at hand is to engage the world as it is.

But that is only half the story. To engage also suggests a transformation of sorts. Jesus, through his encounters, made great people out of weak men. Buddha ruminated and meditated not only to understand and accept pain per se, but to overcome it by feeling pain. And the African proverb suggests that water that is extremely polluted will also kill fish, and so, there must be some moderation of how much impurities may be allowed in. And so it is with our ideals and our accommodation of what stands in their way.

Consider the following: Spiritual writing says that man cannot live by bread alone. Carl Jung liked to talk about what happens when people meet. He described it as akin to a chemical reaction where both parties are transformed. Then there is the mythologist Joseph Campbell who says the metaphor of the dragon as being both reptilian and earth-bound, but having wings and thus being airborne speaks not just of its contradictory nature but also the dilemma of what we are to do with belief and reality. The idea of the dragon is honored in many cultures. Its very contradictory nature represents a unity of sorts — that ideals and reality both exist and must be honored.

The lyrics of the Ateneo graduation song still play in my mind every time I have to deal with things that are wrong in life outside the confines of my beliefs. The 30 years since graduation have taught me that the art of accommodation is a delicate one. The balance of practicality and idealism is precious. For example, one can thrive economically but must not neglect the care of the soul. And, more importantly, one must not despise or shun one or the other.

One time, I had the serendipitous pleasure of finding myself in the presence of a Buddhist monk at a moment of great personal sadness and disappointment. I asked him why it is that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our efforts seem to not bear any fruit. Is there a point in trying still?

He answered me by describing how the beautiful lotus can only grow in mud. That struck me. What a great metaphor! Immediately, I understood that to appreciate life is to accept everything about it. And it includes the fact that a lot of the good things we do with all our heart and against all odds will not be appreciated, but must be done just the same. In a way, it does not matter that we cannot gauge how much impact our efforts are producing. What is important is that we do what we do. In the landscape of meaninglessness, anyone with a declared meaning or purpose changes everything.

I can understand why so few good people give up their comfortable lives and descend into the murky world of politics and public service. Many times, if they are not won over by the forces they want to change, they are challenged, wrestled and eventually booted out by that very system and end up barely changing anything.

And yet, if good people really want to change things, they must do just that. Engagement is key. And hopefully, even if many will be eaten up by the system and become corrupt, there will be some who will succeed as they descend from the hill “down to the earth” while “remembering still how the bright Blue Eagles fly.”

The call of our time has actually remained unchanged from the call of ages past. And the right response has always been the same. No matter what the situation is, just do the right thing.

4 thoughts on “Down from the hill”

  1. Dear Jim,

    I just read this article and it is very inspiring for all Ateneans. Can I ask your permission to circulate this through the email loop of Ateneo Alumni Association of Australia (AAAA).
    I am sure your fellow Atenista can relate to what you could feel, especially us here in Australia.

    By the way, our Ateneo Bowling Team will play in the coming UAAP-NCAA Bowling Tournament on Sep. 20 2009 at Wondabowl AMF Bowling Centre in Castle Hill. Last year’s champion was De La Salle. We will try to wrestle from them the crown this year. I believe we can use that Ateneo Cheers during our game. I will ask Dino Crescini to provide us with the other Ateneo Songs. Me and Dino are both playing for Ateneo, and we have recruited more experienced Ateneo Alumni bowlers this year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *