It can happen anywhere

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 24, 2013 – 12:00am

It has happened before and it is happening again. The world is coming together again. But this time it is doing so at a level and intensity that seems unprecedented. I am talking about the relief efforts being undertaken by a great number of nations on earth to help the ravaged islands of the Philippines after it was hit by Category 5 typhoon Yolanda.

It seems like representatives of almost country in the world are here with their planeloads of relief goods, their doctors and rescue workers. And they brought with them the needed relief that will not only help rescue the victims but also rehabilitate their homes and rebuild their lives.

Every day, I hear of stories daily that uplift my spirits. Foreigners post in their blogs how much they are touched by the suffering they see on television. Many have opened their wallets and sent money to government agencies and NGOs doing relief work apart from what their own governments have done. Every effort is, of course, much appreciated.

This is all good. Apart from the obvious fact that the resources coming in will speed up the efforts, I see it as a sign that humankind is perhaps awakening to the awful truth about how we have all trashed the planet.

There is the painful fact that climate change is indeed already upon us. Mother Nature has been acting out too strangely and out of the norm. Super typhoons, storms, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes are happening way too often. Many scientists say that these catastrophic weather patterns will be the new “normal” and we all must adjust to it from now on.

I saw a meteorologist on TV mention that weather phenomena that used to happen in the Philippines only once every century (based on existing records) are now happening with greater regularity in the past eight years. He also said that other unusual and deadly climate patterns are happening everywhere on the planet. Indeed, records are being broken everywhere in many countries in terms of temperatures (high and low), amount of rainfall and snow and the intensity of the weather disturbances.

In short, what just happened in the Philippines can happen anywhere now. A city, a nation, a continent may be assaulted severely with a weather phenomenon that can destroy it and kill its people as intensely and quickly as what typhoon Haiyan just did.

Two weeks ago, we as a nation got hit. Who knows which country will be hit next? While many governments still deny that climate change is real, the majority of humankind believes it is indeed upon us. Maybe that explains why all this aid is pouring from everywhere. There is the compassion factor of course that motivates people to give, but I believe it is coupled with the remote but real possibility that someday, they too may need help from everyone else.

The world is getting smaller every day. Communication, travel, migration and cyberspace have made us all immediate neighbors living in one big, wild Gotham city. It’s a good metaphor to use, except that in times of catastrophe, there is no Batman to save us and make things right.

More than ever, we are awakening to the fact that we live in one interconnected world. We are interdependent, and close cooperation, unified concerted action are needed more than ever to solve our problems.

“My brother’s fears are my fears, yellow white or brown.

My brother’s tears are my tears the whole wide world around.”

These lyrics from a song titled Because sung by Peter, Paul and Mary have always touched me because it rings true. And it summarizes the reason the world is responding to this terrible tragedy in our part of the world.

While I am awed at the idea that more and more of humanity is coming around, I am hoping that governments of the world will also awaken to the message that we sorely need new economic, social, psychological and structural templates that will change things for the better. The idea of exploiting nature to the point of extinction of its species to feed world’s appetite for consumption needs to be addressed. At the rate we are going, the lifestyle every country aspires for is actually unsustainable. Something has got to give, and the truth is, a lot of what holds us together now seems to be giving way.

The world’s uneven distribution of wealth, the mindless consumerism, hunger and extreme poverty are also something to worry about. In practically every country, the percentage of the nation’s wealth the rich own have only gotten bigger and it is at the expense of the middle class and the poor.

For our country, I feel that the response we have to this tragedy will determine in a big way how our character as a nation will be shaped in the coming years. We could fall and drown in the cynicism and negativity that many in social media are unknowingly promoting. We could listen to them and wallow in distrust of our government, our institutions, the character of our countrymen and even in our own capacity to rise out of this.

Or we could set aside this self-defeating attitudes and take action beyond mere complaining. Everyone can do something concrete. For example, by going to any center and actively repacking goods to bring relief to our countrymen, we are making things better. In these times, it is always a harder challenge to be optimistic. And yet one must be optimistic. After all, it is the positive, hopeful people who end up doing more than those who merely whine about everything. And God knows, we need less toxicity and more optimism if we are to survive this tragedy and thrive as a nation.

It will take years to rebuild. In fact, it will even reach decades. But I believe that where there is crisis, there is the opportunity to learn new things. We as a people together with the rest of humanity must embrace a level of commitment that will continue even when this big story moves to page 6 in a few weeks.

And this commitment shouldn’t be just about relief, but a host of resolutions that will contribute to effectively address the consequences of climate change. This is the time of reckoning. We can either passively accept and resign ourselves to the fact that more of this will be happening and so just continue doing what we have been doing with the planet, or we can take action now to alter the course of human history.

It’s up to us, and we must act now before it is too late.

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Where are you, God?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 17, 2013 – 12:00am

Illustration by rey rivera

I’m feeling it again. The same sick feeling I felt when the tsunami hit Thailand and other places, and when the deadly Fukushima incident happened.

I find myself easily on the verge of tears. I have cried three times and I still can’t get to the bottom of the sadness in my heart. It is possible that I never will. Every time I see images of what happened last week in Tacloban, Cebu, Capiz, Samar, Aklan and Iloilo, I can’t help but fall into a feeling of helplessness and bafflement. It seems as if the whole earth I stand on has been pulled from under me and I am in a free fall as I speculate on the reasons why tragedy happens.

Tragedy seems to be easily explainable when it happens in far-flung places. One can intellectualize and think and “understand” what just happened. One can easily be objective. Shit happens and the collateral damage is factored in. For example, in the deaths of thousands of people in places we have never visited, a people whose color or ways are just too foreign and different from ours, in such tragedies of epic proportions, we might simply pay homage and respect to with a deep sigh and a silent prayer before going back to our business.

But when it happens to our own home, countrymen, or even relatives in places where we may have been born, grown up or even just visited, the distance and objectivity disappear. There is a deep pain that takes over and turns into a shock to our entire system.

I feel physically, psychologically, mentally, socially, economically and spiritually assaulted in a bad way. And I am not even a victim of Yolanda.

What does it feel like when in just a few hours, you lose your home, loved ones, possessions, your neighborhood, and everything that was your comfort zone transforms into something unrecognizably hellish? What’s it like to not have food, water, shelter, medicines for days? What’s it like to live with the stench of the death of your loved ones whom you cannot bury for personal, religious or logistical reasons? What’s it like to lose the comfort, familiarity and safety of your community, when everything that comprised your life is brutally taken away from you?

I read the blog of DSWD secretary Dinky Soliman who is in the front lines in Tacloban, administering to the walking wounded. In her observation, the lawlessness and looting which spontaneously started on day one was an angry reaction to the sudden, unexplainable loss of everything. She speculated that perhaps people who at other times were friendly, good and decent, were angry at God who had turned their lives completely upside down and destroyed everything they had. The God who ruled much of their lives had abandoned them and they started grasping at anything they could hold on to.

I, too, have been thinking about God in this tragedy. In an essay I wrote when the tsunami in Thailand happened in 2004, I posted a lot of questions about God. I would like to quote extensively from it (published in my book As Is, Where Is) since I am feeling the same way now as I was feeling then.

Where is help going to come from? From God? Who is this God anyway? In times like these, many people, including myself, are tempted to ask if God is a caring God. If He is, then please somebody ask Him why there is so much suffering in this world He created? Why is this God so cold and unfeeling, allowing people, even helpless children to suffer and die painfully and needlessly every single day? I cry as I ask these questions. Why? Because if I cannot turn to God for solace or reasons that make sense, or find in Him some physical relief from the torments of life on earth, then what is really going on?

I feel like a fool as I realize once again that this whole concept of a God of Comfort and Safety, which is my default understanding of Him, has once again turned into a fairy tale. Forgive me for saying this, but a God that allows all this is not an easy God to accept, nor understand.

Yet I still hold deep in my heart and so want to believe that the God I know is love, as so many have said and as I have experienced from time to time. And yet, if all this suffering is a manifestation of His love, then what kind of lover is He? And what kind of ‘loving relationship’ is He trying to have with mankind? Or is this all a joke, another hare-brained take by men on a subject no one really knows anything about?

God seems to periodically retreat from the image we know of Him, (or at least wish Him to be and that is the loving God), and sometimes manifests as a repulsive, cruel and inscrutable deity who must be pleased with blood sacrifice. This is truly a mystery that baffles anyone — even those of great faith.

And this contradictory God, this paradoxical God is where I see an invitation, a challenge to go further in our query and our understanding. Exactly what draws me deeper into a seeming abyss that these questions lead to may be the whole point of it all. And the black hole goes beyond the suffering and right straight to the mystery of a God whose expressions of love can be cruelly inscrutable and baffling.

What is His love all about? What is the love that He speaks of in the light of all this suffering? Sometimes I think that God the Lover wants to up the ante in the relationship by leaving us mystified and thus wanting us to probe deeper. Ponder, ponder, ponder and find out for yourself the ‘love’ in all this.

To engage the hard-to-understand and the seemingly unfathomable aspects of this God is the bait that can lead our consciousness to an ever-growing, ever-expanding and an ever-inquiring one. A consciousness that is willing to go to the edge of everything it knows and take a leap of faith, and hope that it will be rescued by something — anything, hopefully nothing short of a full understanding, or at least some reasons that will pacify or quell our confusion and anger. God seems to be saying, “There’s more to me that you need to understand.”

And in the process, there is more to us that will also come to light about ourselves. So I dare go ahead and ask all these questions. But I must get bigger to find the answers.

God, you draw out everything in me. I still haven’t decided though whether what you bring out is my best or worst. It does not matter. My miniscule understanding of You is once again being challenged and upgraded. And as I am getting bigger, so are You!

Meanwhile, as I waste precious time pondering these ageless, unanswerable theological questions, life must go on. There is much to be done. To wait for a clear answer from God is to waste time.

The typhoon victims must be fed, the dead buried, communities must be rebuilt and life must continue and normalize. For these to be accomplished, donations must be made, food and clothing must be packed and shipped, and funds must be raised now and in the many years to come. This will need a big portion of our personal time, effort, dedication, patience and sense of purpose.

The only response to the meaninglessness of it all is, strangely enough, concrete action. Maybe in so doing, we can find where God really is.

12 steps to national recovery from corruption

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 10, 2013 – 12:00am

Recently, I’ve been reading about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12 Steps to Recovery, a program that helps people conquer their addiction to alcohol and other substances. It has been around for many decades and has helped transform hundreds of thousands of addicts all over the world.

The 12 Steps are powerful and transformative. I know people who have used them to great effect. I have seen them remarkably sober after many years of malingering substance abuse. They managed to return to their functional lives before they were swallowed by their drug habit and have remained alcohol and substance free for years now.

Addiction can be catastrophic. It can disrupt the social and moral fabric that holds a person, a family and a society together. The addicted gets trapped in an illusory world where he becomes totally enslaved by his addiction.

The 12 Steps have been used successfully to treat other addictions as well, such as gambling, sex and others. Now here’s a wild thought: What if the 12 Steps of AA were applied to help us as a society face our pathologies and conquer them so we can be less dysfunctional as a nation? Can it help us conquer corruption on a personal level so that we become less prone to it as a people?

Think of our milieu—family, neighbors, colleagues, and everyone in our country as belonging to some sort of fellowship trying to honestly grapple with our own personal weaknesses.

Imagine that we are in a town hall or barangay in a gathering similar to that of an AA meeting. We open ourselves to each other, exposing our vulnerabilities. There is no judgment or condemnation and we let down our defenses as we recognize the possibility that we ourselves are co-dependents of corruption. How can we not be? We voted for the corrupt and continue to do so.

It is in this context that I imagine the possibility of the 12 Steps working its gifts on us. Addiction is a spiritual disease, and the 12 Steps are a spiritual path to recovery.

Here are the 12 Steps with my commentary on how they can apply to our situation. To make it more relevant, I have replaced the word “alcohol” with “corruption.”

The exercise begins with the introduction: ‘I am ________ I am a Filipino and I am addicted to/ or a co-dependent of corruption.’

• We admitted that we were powerless over corruption — that our lives had become unmanageable.

The first step towards recovery is to admit there is a big problem that must be faced. It has become so pronounced that we can’t deny it anymore, not even to ourselves. Recently, we as a nation have awakened to the reality that we are corrupt, that corruption is pervasive in our political, social and personal lives.

Look around us. It is everywhere. People like Napoles and even corrupt high government officials continue to be prominently well-placed in our society. The corrupt are rewarded while the honest are given a hard time.

• Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

We are slowly realizing that we cannot rely on a few people or institutions to save us from the curse of corruption. That’s a complete copout. We must ALL be involved in purging this pathology that has permeated our social and moral fabric. Through the power of the many, we will we become consciously aware and act together to save ourselves.

• Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Since corruption is a spiritual issue that erodes character, believing in the power of conscience, God (or our Higher Power), reminding ourselves of the simplest moral code common to all people, can help us say “no” to corruption. We must go back to the basics of our beliefs and trust that God will empower us to help us free ourselves.

• Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Let’s be brutally honest in our assessment of ourselves. Let’s purge ourselves of our delusions. Let us admit to both our strengths and weaknesses. Full disclosure is what is being demanded here. An excruciating reality check is in order. Individually, we must also admit that we have somehow contributed to our society’s moral decay. We have engaged in bribery ourselves at one time or another, or at least allowed it to happen and did nothing to stop it.

• Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

We all must do an admission of guilt, both those who have been accused and those who accuse. Nothing less is expected. We must know the entire story of how we got here. Admitting we have wronged the nation, ourselves and each other in big or small ways, and accepting full accountability for our actions is key to breaking free from corruption. We must own up to our actions. This is an act of responsibility, humility, honesty and great courage. It is also an act of liberation.

• Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

We must be willing to completely dismantle the structure, habits, practices, mindsets, attitudes that perpetuate this pattern of corruption pervading in our lives. There must be structural, spiritual and psychological change in all levels. We must also work on ourselves so that we do not contribute to the culture of corruption in any way.

• Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Have the humility to admit that we are part of the problem, and ask our better selves and our God to give us the moral strength to help us be freed from this addiction to corruption.

• Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Let us reach out to those members of society we may have unknowingly deprived of their rightful share of opportunities and gifts in our corrupt pursuit of wealth and money. We must reach out to the communities especially those that continue to suffer from the injustice we have perpetrated, and do our part in alleviating their situation.

• Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

There is real compassion and there is idiot compassion. The idiotic kind is toxic and perpetuates further co-dependency. We must have a compassion that liberates people, the kind that does not deny them their dignity while we are helping them. Otherwise, we are merely feeding their dependence addiction and opening them and ourselves to more potentially corruptive situations.

• Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Adopt and embrace a culture of self-awareness where we are willing to subject ourselves to constructive criticism to improve as individuals and as a people. We must learn to accept feedback. As a society, we must be honest enough to admit our faults and go beyond merely talking about it and actually doing something about it.

• Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

We need to be connected and answerable to a Higher Power — God, however we see and understand Him. We must also listen to our conscience so that we may be inspired to pursue real personal and social change. That means going deep into ourselves and everything we believe and value, and drawing strength and direction from our core to transform ourselves, and eventually our nation.

• Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to the corrupt and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

We must become true to ourselves and to our Higher Power in every way possible. We must mean what we say and say what we mean. We must spread the true word to others by example. We can liberate each other through inspiring actions. We must apply the moral standards we expect from our leaders to our own selves.

If we all actually walk the talk, others will see that change is possible.

Prisoners of comfort

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 3, 2013 – 12:00am

As a human living in the most modern of times, I am amazed at how much freedom and material comfort there is to enjoy. I am speaking as a person who has visited parts of the world like the US, Japan, Australia, etc. This even applies to the Philippines but perhaps to a lesser degree. Aside from the usual democratic space and convenient lifestyle, there is so much information and technology we have access to that opens to us an ever-expanding freedom of choice about what to buy, do and how to live our lives.

But even as I type this and search the Net and listen to music, watch TV and eat a sandwich all at the same time, I can’t help but think of how much the whole set up can also be oppressive to the human spirit. No, I am not just being a whiner or a spoiled brat.

Just take a look around you. In a way, we are all prisoners of comfort and convenience. We are dependent on our gadgets. We are like our own appliances and computers that can only function when connected to the grid of modern life. More and more, we live bigger chunks of our lives online. We are also tied to schedules, deadlines, mortgages, debts, routines and all the new social obligations brought about by modernity.

While the times we live in has undoubtedly seen great strides forward in the areas of human freedoms and liberation from hunger, ignorance and poverty, it has also created new “prisons” for us to languish in.

Let’s examine two of the contemporary social and psychological templates we are subscribed to as individuals and societies. These determine how we see and act in the world. Let’s ask ourselves if we are happier, more integrated people with these new values and if we are creating and building more inclusive communities.

Take a look at modern societies’ view of aging. Many of them see people getting old as a problem. I detect a cultural pathology here. Perhaps because of our cult of youth, we see people who move further and further away from what we think youth is, to be less productive, less functional members of society. More and more, they are seen as a burden on the social safety nets and a drain on the incomes of those responsible for them.

The elderly in Australia, the US, etc. suffer the pain of abandonment and alienation of being put to pasture in an old folks home. I know this is a real dilemma for a lot of people. As much as some would like to keep their parents with them, the society is structured as such to make it almost impossible to do. Where generations should be more connected, modern societies choose to alienate the young from the elderly. Could this be an offshoot of rugged individualism gone crazy? A utilitarian, throwaway materialistic culture where we get rid of or set aside what cannot be fixed, retooled or upgraded?

Contrast this to how the elderly are treated in less modern societies. The aged are part of the family/community and are generally seen to have earned their respected place. They are looked at with affection for being the younger generations’ link to their family heritage and life itself. And mainly because they have survived long enough, they are presumed to be repositories of some wisdom. And yes, they mostly live with their families.

Sometimes, I feel that the less modern societies have a more holistic view of life. It might be because they are more in touch with nature. They still witness and participate in its seasonal changes and cycles, from sowing to reaping of harvests, birth to decay, youth to adulthood, sickness to death—all in a more intimate family or communal setting.

Another thing that moderns need to address is the constant bombardment of commercialism and materialism. I have talked with a lot of young people who have consciously chosen the pursuit of money over passion and what they consider as more meaningful endeavors in life. In my time, most young people chose the latter hands down. It seems that money itself has become the meaning of life for many. This I find really unsettling. But at the same time, it is inevitable that many think this way.

The cult of money and materialism in modern life is so strong that very few can resist it. The never-ending quest to have the newest, latest, fastest, most modern, highest versions, upgrades of toys, goods and products has become an epidemic. The cycle and speed of technology seems to double every few years causing an ever faster cycle of consumption.

The flash and glitz of materialism has captured the hearts and souls of many people. Instant gratification is the mantra of the age. The modern view of living is to experience everything before one gets old. To be modern is the fashion and the passion. And one needs money to live fashionably and passionately with the times.

And yet the more important things in life demand from us a patience, a quietude, and a lot of internal sorting out to be able to live sanely and humanely in a shallow, noisy, and soul-killing world. At times, one must be able to dis-identify and disengage with the world and transcend the call of the life of comfort, style and conformity. We need to see through the illusion of the emptiness materialism brings and be alive to life’s other gifts. There is more to life than endless acquisition.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a fast rising star in a dressing room of a television station. After I congratulated him for his many successes, we got out of the usual showbiz topics and talked more deeply about life. I asked him if he was happy. He was perplexed and did not know how to answer. He paused for a while and merely said, “I am supposed to be happy because I have all this fame and money. After all, everybody wants these.”

To win this battle for our hearts and souls, we must look at each other beyond the functions or labels that the world has given us. We are more than consumers, users, customers, clients, followers in a market of endlessly enticing goods, gadgets and services. We are humans who have dreams, ambitions, passions and yearnings that the pixie dust of the world cannot fulfill.

To fulfill them, we must learn to accept the pain and wisdom to love, to struggle, to attach and detach, sacrifice and surrender, and to see the difference between the kicks that go with the novelty of something worldly, and the profound joy that goes with the free but enduring spiritual gifts in life.

I have often caught myself defying the world. I chose passion over money in the pursuit of my career. I have occasionally stood against the sometimes coercive call of political correctness and its conventions and social expectations. I have turned down many things that I knew could be beneficial materially but would not have served my spirit and those I love.

No, we are not being asked to abandon all things material and walk the desert. It is not a denial of the world but a balance that must be attained. We live in the world and enjoy its gifts but we must keep it a sustainable place for everyone. This demands an amount of spirituality. No to runaway materialism. We already know where that has brought us to.

We must heed the call of a spirituality that can help us look at the world and ourselves in a more holistic manner. And this means going way beyond the mere materially beneficial relationships we can exploit. We need more of the human, spiritual connectedness that binds us together.

This is what will make us free.