Sustaining the ‘Francis Effect’

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 25, 2015 – 12:00am

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 12.09.26 AM

What a visit it was. He came and captured most everyone’s hearts with his humility and humor, compassion and simplicity. And yes, with his big smile.

Some said the five days felt like a spiritual retreat. To others, the gatherings like those held in UST and the Luneta were akin to Woodstock — peace and love everywhere — without the drugs and sex. However you describe it, to the great majority, it was a life-changing experience. They were overwhelmed. The “Francis Effect” touched our very core.

It has now been close to a week since the Pope’s visit. I look at Facebook and other social media and I notice that the topic of Pope Francis’ visit is beginning to recede. There are still a lot of posts and comments about the visit but people are beginning to get back to their own lives and are once again posting and talking about the other things that interest them.

After a high, like this, it is true that we must get back to the ground zero of our daily lives. “Down from the hill. Down to the earth go I,” as the Ateneo graduation song goes. As a zen proverb puts it, “After enlightenment, the laundry.” There is the mundane uninspired everyday life that must be lived.

I was with a group of friends two days ago and we were talking about the Pope’s visit and how we as a people were so moved. What was amazing was people waited for hours in the rain, many without food. And they listened to every word Francis said.

We all appreciated the compassion, love and humility that flowed from him. It was so real you could not miss it.

And we behaved like good, disciplined and decent citizens. We stayed behind the barricades. We followed the rather strict security instructions with few complaints. And we felt proud because we as a people actually did it.

In the Pope’s homilies, he talked about many issues. He spoke about reaching out to the peripheries and helping the poor and disempowered, the evil of corruption, the gift of family, the wisdom of women, the peace talks, the care of children, materialism, climate change, the importance of crying in compassion. We were all touched and impressed at how clearly the messages were delivered and received.

After analyzing everything, our little group began to toy with the idea of how best we could keep the messages of the Pope alive and doable in our society.

While he spoke as a spiritual leader, the issues he raised also had great significant socio-political implications. How can you discuss poverty or corruption for example without getting into a socio-cultural-political discussion?

We asked ourselves many questions. What if we could look into his homilies as inspiration and really come up with doable actions in our everyday lives? Can we make his words flesh and carry them out in concrete ways that will help the poor? What if we can start a movement that people could believe in and follow, and adopt the Pope’s messages and take creative positive steps to make life better? Can his words unleash the power of conversion in our society to be a more caring one? What can we do right now that will make a difference?

All politics is local, it has been said. Like politics, good intentions for the world and mankind must be expressed locally as well. We must do so in our own here and now.

We can start by caring about our own neighborhoods. We can perhaps show more concern about garbage, peace and order, safety and the wellbeing of everyone. This requires active involvement and community service. This calls upon us to think and care about what’s outside the gates of our houses.

Around our own community, there are rich and poor areas that have co-existed peacefully for decades. The neighborhood is rather friendly. People in the geographically higher parts of the subdivision often open their doors to the flood-stricken during strong typhoons. Many households hire their help, including kasambahay and drivers from the poorer side of the community. It s not a perfect neighborhood but it is clear that a level of interdependence already exists. A community will disintegrate if people do not interact or care about each other.

Another thing we can do to curb corruption is to educate ourselves and others about the issue so that more competent and honest people are voted into office. In fact we should be doing voters’ education this early for the elections in 2016. It’s time to stop lamenting and blaming others for voting the corrupt into office again and again. We either put up or shut up. We can do something about it.

There is also much work we can do to alleviate the suffering of those who have less in life. I know a group of women who have been working with the poor and contributing resources to make sure all the kids in their community have three full meals a day. We can start our own or simply support initiatives like these that are already up and running.

There are many creative and practical ways to live out the Pope’s teachings. These are only some of the things I have thought of. In truth, there are limitless opportunities for practicing compassion. We just have to look at where we are right now and respond with love and creativity.

The saddest thing would be to allow the “Francis Effect” to simply fade away and watch ourselves falling into ever-deeper cynicism. The commitment being asked of us is that we not only shed tears to see and feel the suffering of others clearly, but we must also do something about it.

Look who’s talking

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 18, 2015 – 12:00am

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

— Gautama Buddha

I have pondered the above quote many times. I still do. It takes a lot of living to really know, to be confident and sure about what you really believe in.

Since the time we were born, we have been fed rules, guidelines, laws, so-called truths, dogmas and beliefs by authorities such as our parents, caregivers, teachers, public officials, friends and religious leaders. We were instilled with habits to help us go through life.

Our minds and hearts were shaped and molded by what others believed to be true and good for us. They taught us to fear authority and to fear being ostracized. We were classified, categorized and forced to live in boxes. Conformity was rewarded. Individualism was frowned upon. And we all felt the need to be accepted and so we all complied with society for the most part.

For many people, this arrangement is fine and is as it should be. They have no problem with this state of affairs. There are many people who are comfortable living their lives without the need to probe, or to question how and why things are as they are. To a certain extent, we are all like this.

But there are some who are not always too happy about things being as they are. There are certain aspects in the conduct of their lives where they digress from the rest. They have a great need to express themselves not in the way everyone else does.

This feeling of being different happens at certain times in our lives. When I was a teen, I often asked myself why I generally found it difficult to fit in. Most kids my age seemed happier than I was. That’s how I felt. Maybe I felt that way because I was too intense and self-conscious.

It took me a while to get out of my shell and express myself. And I did this mainly through music. Writing came much later on.

We are often faced with situations where we are made to react by expressing our opinions. When I was much younger, I often caught myself sounding like the people I admired. I still do at times. Sometimes, after saying my piece, I would notice that I sounded like my mother, or some teachers that had made an impact in my life, or some authors I had read. I could hear their voices in my head as I spoke.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps they did have a great influence over me and have made me what I am. Perhaps.

Sometimes though, I notice that my reactions are knee-jerk ones and, yes, borrowed. In short, I feel safe expressing them because they have come from authority figures. In fact, I may have never even encountered firsthand the life experiences or situations being talked about, yet I judge and opine about them all too quickly.

As I got older, I realized that personal experiences do shape our opinions and are more meaningful and relevant than opinions or thoughts we have borrowed from others. What is real is more valuable than the theoretical. Real-life experience is indeed king!

There is a saying in Zen that goes, “When you meet the Buddha on the road, you must kill him.” This is one of those koans meant to shock at first in the hope that it brings you to a state of deep insight. It may take months to make sense of it. After much thought, to me, this means that one can have many teachers and believe in many ideals but it is our own experiences that we must trust in the end. And they may be contrary to the teachings we may have grown up with. Experience, more than the words of teachers and authority figures, is still the best teacher.

When I wrote the song Batang-bata Ka Pa for my firstborn child, I included a line that went,

“Nais ko sanag malaman

Ang mali sa katotohanan.

Sariling pagraranas

Ang aking pamamagitan.”

I knew that while my precious, helpless little baby was totally dependent on me, there would surely come the day when she would have to explore and find her own truths, and these may not necessarily resonate with mine.

We all have to individuate at some point and discover what we really believe and what is true for us. It may take a lot of pain and we will encounter mistakes and tough lessons. It takes a lot of courage to get over the fear of becoming ourselves. But it is the way to go.

But some never get there. They live in the safe zone of what has been told to them. They are content with that. They like things cut and dried. They like the safety and assurance of someone else telling them how to live. They avoid the fear of speaking in their own voice. That’s way too scary.

One of the things I try to make a habit of is the art of stepping back and observing myself in the third person. While I speak and interact with people, I also look at myself and what is happening as some sort of “unattached witness.” I catch myself bullshitting at times, but also being authentic at other times. The witnessing helps me know more about my true self and define my own opinions as opposed to merely speaking in borrowed voices.

“Look who’s talking” is something I ask myself when I speak. It makes me clearer and more real to myself.

Why not try not trying?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 11, 2015 – 12:00am

Throughout our lives, we have been taught to always try harder, improve ourselves, seek the better option, and go for the top. I remember how my school, parents and role models would urge me to push the envelope and defy my limitations. In many ways, I am grateful to them because I felt really good discovering that I was capable of so much more than I thought.

My mother told me that I could pursue any career I wanted as long as I did my best in my chosen field. This was, and still is, my guiding principle in life.

I have great respect for people who have bodies of work that illustrate what their lives are about, even if only in part. I speak of authors, musicians, architects, philosophers, artists — people who create for a living.

Their bodies of work can be seen as themes or narratives they have cultivated through different stages in their lives. These are documents or statements about what they thought and what they felt passionate about at different points in time.

A lifework can only be created if one is dedicated to pursuing one’s passions and dreams. And doing so necessarily leads to and becomes a quest for continuous improvement.

I look at the driving force behind a lifework as man’s striving for immortality. It is an assurance that their accomplishment will outlive them somehow, even just for a while.

But as I got older and was spiritually awakened, I stumbled upon a vital life skill that seems to be in contrast to the beliefs and attitudes I stated above. I discovered the virtue of acceptance. As I become more accepting, I am learning more and more that there is a time to strive and a time to stop resisting. Indeed, there is a time to just not do anything.

Instead of constantly trying to improve and changing the way things are, acceptance asks us to pause and not resist the forces that move around us. It wants us to detach from the need to fix things or make them perfect. It asks us to just let things unravel, to look at the world with all its faults, imperfections, wrongs, and accept it for what it is.

I once listened to a Joseph Campbell lecture on the mythical story of The Frog Prince. The young girl in the

fairytale was disgusted and sick to her stomach at the mere sight of the frog she had invited into her life, whom she had to eat and sleep with, as she had promised. And the prospect of having to kiss it was totally unbearable. She was in a bind. She had made a promise and it had to be kept. Sooner or later she had to do it.

But when she finally relented and kissed the frog, it magically turned into a prince. The lesson here is that life can only become beautiful once you accept how horrible and ugly it is. When you do, you stop feeling entitled to a perfect life and begin to work with its harsh realities. Then you discover its hidden joys and gifts.

And while that seems all good and nice, if you are coming from a social activist’s point of view, this “fatalism” can seem so wrong on many levels. Aren’t we supposed to change the world, to make things better for humanity? Should we just allow the degradation of the environment, ISIS and Ebola to run roughshod over humanity?

It is a conundrum.

I am consoled by the “Serenity Prayer” of Reinhold Niebuhr which goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

It is a call to accept the yin with the yang, the “pair and unity of opposites” that is integral to life. Where there is joy, pain is not far behind. Where there is life, death is also present. Paradoxical, it is.

A paradox is a statement that seems like it is wrapped in contradiction, but upon deep reflection, turns out to be profoundly true. An example of this is the Christian adage that one must be willing to lose his life in order to gain it. Another one is the idea of a king born in a manger who will save the world. The late writer M. Scot Peck expressed the belief that all enduring truths are paradoxical in nature.

My 25-year old son Mio who recently visited from Sydney was complaining about the traffic and so many other things wrong in Manila. He said that he can’t accept the attitude of many Filipinos that “things are really just like this.” He spoke with the sureness of youth, and the experience of having lived elsewhere, where life is different, to back his denunciation.

Strangely, I found myself agreeing with him wholeheartedly even though I have pretty much settled with the reality of how life is here.

At my age, I already know that there is a time to struggle, to strive, to aspire, and to pursue and there is a time to just allow things to be or to unravel as they will. As Carl Jung put it, there are things that are true in the morning of life that stop being important in the afternoon.

Life, by its very nature, is filled with tension. To be physically alive, one must defy gravity and reject the pull of inertia. One can say that life itself is an act of defiance. But even as one fights certain forces in order to stay alive, one must also surrender to them — to rest, gather strength, reinvigorate and continue living. In the same way, musical notes must accommodate rests and silences for a melody to have coherence.

Do the things you must do and do your best, but try not to be attached to outcomes. Just do it. It’s as simple as that. As a creative, I know that trying to do creative work is the hardest thing. But by simply being creative, one effortlessly gets the job done. Why? Because it is not something that you must do. You simply must be who you are. There should be no effort in that.

Lao-Tzu said, “Practice non-doing and everything will fall into place.” This is not a call to be lazy, or to merely wish for things to happen. This is about going with the flow instead of trying too hard to survive it. It is the art of effortless doing, instead of “industrious” and frenzied action, that makes living life an art form.

5 Filipino values that can change the Philippines for the better

By Jim Paredes

The Krem-Top Campaign that calls on every Filipino to ‘Change for the Better’ was a challenge that was launched two years ago. It is a wonderful call. It encourages all Filipinos to institute positive change that will affect the direction of our country’s future. They can be small little resolutions that we can adopt which will not only change us individually but can result in a collective transformation.

I was asked to be a resource speaker during a press briefing they did a few weeks back. I was there with Dr. Mina Ramirez, phenomenological sociologist and President of Asian Social Institute and she talked about Filipino values that can help us not only cope but thrive as a nation.

She mentioned the following:

1) Mapagpasalamat
Having a sense of gratitude is a wonderful attitude to adopt. This is a Filipino trait that serves us well. It makes us more appreciative, and thankful for every gift that comes into our lives. We also become more positive and hopeful as a people. This perhaps explains why we can smile throughout tragedy. Foreign aid workers where in awe when they say Yolanda kids playing basketball two days after the tragedy and shouting with glee despite the squalor and the destruction around them. It is not only a great coping tool but is also thriving mechanism.

2) Matatag

This characteristic defines us quite accurately. With all the natural disasters that have come our way, we remain standing, firm and strong. This is because we live for our loved ones and we will be strong and resilient for them. Mayor Sandy Javier of Javier town cleared the road of debris that led to his town in Leyte 72 hours after Yolanda struck. He knew aid would not come if the road was blocked. But he felt that it was not the time to give in to despair so he acted swiftly.

3) Masigasig

The word implies diligence and zeal. We are capable of committing to long term efforts to do what needs to be done for our families and loved ones. The OFW who toils for years in another country is an example of what being masigasig is all about. He can live through hardship for years just to provide for the future.

4) Mapagmalasakit means compassionate. We are indeed a giving people. We open our homes to people in need. We respond to disasters with a giving heart. We adopt relatives. We offer help to friends when they are in dire straights.

One can’t ignore the fact that we offer every visitor in the house to join us during meals. You will not find this to be true in many other countries.

I think the concept of Bayanihan, a wonderful Filipino trait and practice is also part of being malasakit, but in a grander communal scale.. It is something that we do on a community level where we all move as one and do what needs to be done. A sociologist told me that the famous rice terraces is the only structure in the world of that magnitude that was not built with slave labor. They were built by neighbors who wanted to collectively enjoy the benefits that this type of farming could bring.

It meant pulling resources, time together to achieve common goals.
Bayanihan manifested itself too when we acted in EDSA and threw away the dictatorship. Bayanihan is also the operating system we use when disaster strikes. People come together and help the needy and the disaster-stricken.
My own daughter felt the need to convert our house into a center for collection of goods and packing meals during Ondoy and Yolanda. Together with her friends, they worked for many days, and networked with others to deliver the goods to those in need.

5) Magalang
We are respectful and polite. We love the elderly, and show respect to people whom we admire. We show politeness and civility quite often even in the presence of our enemies.

Dr. Mina Ramirez points out these intrinsic 5 qualities we Filipinos possess as tools we can use to change ourselves and our country for the better.

By being conscious of these values, and using them as strengths to move forward, we can do a lot of changes which will be tangible in our country.

How my 2014 ended and 2015 began

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated January 4, 2015 – 12:00am

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 9.27.35 AM
I am writing this as I have just arrived from Boracay a few hours ago. We have just returned from a short vacation from the Dec. 28, 2014 to Jan. 1 with my family and some relatives.

We decided to go to Boracay during the holidays since we had such a great time in 2009 when we spent the onset of the new year there.

That was five years ago.

Since that time, many things have changed, and yes, quite drastically. The number of people who were vacationing in Boracay in 2009 compared to now seems to have doubled. The airports, boats, transfers and buses were teeming with vacationers going to and leaving Paradise. The lines in the check-in and check-out counters everywhere seemed endless and unwieldy. All in all, it took us some nine hours from the time we left our house in Quezon City to the time we arrived in our hotel in Boracay, even though the flight was only 45 minutes. It was a crawl from Manila until we got to our destination.

The crowds in public areas in Boracay like D’Mall, the the pedestrian walks on the beach that lined Stations 1, 2 and 3, even the main and back roads where cars and tricycles passed were filled with people most of the time.

In many instances, we had to call and make reservations every time we wanted to eat out.

I must admit, it took me more than the usual time to begin to relax and enjoy the vacation. The social critic in me kicked off big time and was stressing out analyzing the problems of how and why things had become as crazy as this. There is the problem of overpopulation. There is also the clear lack of physical infrastructures — airports, bigger roads, more sea transportation, hotels that could accommodate the growing number of people from all over the world who want to vacation and enjoy the astounding beauty our country offers.

It took me awhile to silence my natural inclination to rant and stop thinking of problems to complain about and just enjoy myself. I realized that more often than not, the more one needs a vacation, the more one can be so resistant to it. You can also claim you need one, and perhaps you do, but it takes a while to settle into the right mode to enjoy it when it is there. Vacation can be a great inconvenience until one completely surrenders to it.

After an hour of rest, after I changed my shoes to slippers, my long pants to shorts, my polo shirt into a sleeveless T-shirt, did vacation mode start to kick in. As I got out of Shoretime Hotel and crossed the street to access the beach, I felt a wave of relaxation come over me. The beach was as eternally gorgeous as it was the last time I was there. It still had the finest white sand one can find anywhere in the world. I welcomed the sensation of the sand finding its way between my toes. The sensation of walking on the sand was simply liberating. The surge of sea wind made my weary spirit fly animatedly as it mussed my hair and made my loose shirt flap against my body. I felt alive and carefree.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 9.30.22 AM
Despite the throngs of people walking on the beach, the beauty of Boracay was still there. She still beckoned. At night, the clubs and bars were alive more than ever with all sorts of party animals. It was and has always been crazy fun. Or fun crazy, if you wish.

Almost everywhere we went, the locals were friendly and accommodating. The staff at Shoretime was simply wonderful. They instinctively knew what we wanted or needed on every occasion. On the beach, they had lounging chairs, towels, drinks, umbrellas ready for us. One time, I had a craving for turon and asked where I could find some on the island. One member of the staff quickly volunteered to buy some for me a few miles down the road. My sister-in-law asked where she could get some popsicles. A staff member offered to walk with her a block away to where she could get some.

Before we left Manila to go on vacation, we had heard about the rainy weather advisory which was in effect for Dec. 30 and 31. We had planned on having a New Year’s Eve dinner along the beach but had to change plans. Two days before the dinner, a staff member of Shoretime Hotel offered the use of the conference room to accommodate our group’s planned get-together. She offered a delicious menu, which we approved.

After our sumptuous New Year’s Eve dinner, shortly before midnight, we rushed out to the beach to watch the fireworks coming from all the stations to usher in 2015. Amid a strong drizzle and under umbrellas and wearing jackets, we joined many people on the beach as we watched like children in awe, taking pictures and videos and cheering as every pyrotechnical wonder lit the night sky. Our guests from the US claimed they had not seen such fireworks all in one night. As the clock struck 12, we cheered and shouted and greeted everyone. We stayed on the beach for another 30 minutes before we went back for more indoor celebrations. It was still a fun New Year’s Eve party even if it wasn’t how we had it five years back.

The next day, I got an advisory from AirAsia that flights had been canceled the previous night and that morning due to visibility problems. We were scheduled to leave at 4:20 p.m. We were advised to proceed as planned since the weather could clear up by afternoon. We did exactly that. On the way back to Kalibo where the airport was, the shuttle, boat and bus ride back went without a hitch. We got to the airport an hour and a half before the scheduled flight. We managed to check in easily.

The airport was bursting at the seams. It was filled with passengers all waiting to go home. Some had been there since morning because their flights were canceled earlier. Many were there simply waiting for their much-delayed flights to bring them home. The airport congestion in Manila had delayed every flight including ours. It was bedlam.

We finally got on board the plane four hours after our scheduled flight, and promptly got home at 10:30 p.m. exhausted, only to be greeted by more relatives waiting at home who threw a party for some of our Boracay companions leaving the next day.

Our tiredness soon dissipated as the party went into high gear. We sat down, ate, drank, exchanged stories, laughed and simply enjoyed ourselves in the company of loved ones.

We finally got to bed at 2 a.m. What a year ender it was. And what a start of a new one.