Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Feeling Pain, Avoiding Pain

Pain is something we often avoid if we could. But some kinds of pain do make us better. Bodybuilders gain from pain by literally destroying muscle cells through strenuous weightlifting and then rebuilding them during sleep. The muscular pain that they go through during and right after the workout they have learned to endure and even savor while it lasts. Why? Because the overall sense of well-being one gets from exercise brings on an addictive fix. (A beautiful looking body isn’t a bad incentive either.) A period of idleness can bring about a lethargic spell that is worse than the tingling sensation of pain. In this case, the emotional stress can be worse than the physical pain.

Hunger can be a helpful kind of pain or suffering, if you please. (Fasting and prayer have been known to bring rains.) It tells us when we need to rest from what we are doing – or not doing – to reenergize the body. Same with thirst. And other elemental biological human desires. We all learn early on in life to deal with all these kinds of signals in the way we have been taught or the way we have come to cope with them – rightly or not.

Most kinds of pain, however, are generally unwanted, unnecessary and burdensome. Sickness comes to mind. So does the all-too familiar feeling of embarrassment or shame. All these come with the territory of being human. The heartache arising from a failed relationship, although necessary to teach us to become more well-equipped in life, can leave us debilitated for a while. We end up walking half-dead, totally unfeeling at times but almost always bearing that bittersweet emptiness that no one else will learn to share with us. Loneliness is the first and lasting human pain. And even God “learned” to appreciate that it is not what humans need to go through constantly.

So in the beginning, marriage came into being. And then all the real pain came about. If truth be told.

Woman experienced the pain of childbearing and childbirth. Man learned to bear the painful burden of supporting and raising a family. And so many other “slings and arrows” that bedevil marriages.

This does not mean life comes bereft of comfort, joys and unequalled satisfaction. The balance of life – yin and yang -- however, does not mean anguish is necessary for humans to truly know the worth of happiness. Nor vice versa. Angels in heaven do have eternal bliss in spite of all the sorrow they see in us. That comes from their capacity to behold the face of God when they need to. Something that Adam and Eve used to have and do in the Garden. Until in deep humiliation they had to depart that place of painless existence. (Well, except for Adam’s loneliness, nothing else spoiled our first parents’ aborted stay in Eden.)

The pain of sin and its resulting punishment – death – that became our lot after the fall has no equal in terms of consequence. It affects our eternal destiny. And for many, that pain will be the worst burden they can bear in life. Among them are the blessed ones who find release through a spiritual conversion. The rest go through life carrying the yoke of guilt and bitterness through their denial of the One Whom their sinful life has offended. Yes, like many masochistic people who literally induce self-inflected pain, many of us wake up in the morning with our minds chained to unrepented sins. It could be as simple as envy or hatred. Or as heavy as a crime. Whatever it may be, pain – in the form of guilt, anger or jealousy -- lurks like a shadow of the mind, unseen but ever present with its diabolic aura. Yet so many people have built a callous conscience to remove the throbbing pang of guilt in their lives. It takes the top award for being the best defense against guilt ever developed (psychology comes next) and yet the most ineffective of all.

It takes human discernment to know oneself. It takes spiritual discernment to know God. As humans, we all know somehow what pain is and what it can do to us. As believers of God, we may have the privilege to know why we go through pain and what we can do to alleviate or eliminate it. Of the many things we ascribe to God and His nature, the one quality He possesses that is closest to our being human is this: He feels our pains.

(Photo above: Metro Manila lights dance after sundown under a saber of light atop Antipolo hill.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tarzan’s Challenge: Creating Something New

The best line from the 1984 movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes attacked my mind like a rushing panther: “Transcend the loss and pain; create something new…. Or all you have worked for will be in vain.” The young Earl of Greystoke -- or Tarzan, as we commonly know him -- had been given the chance to be what he really was – human and not an ape. For many of us, the choice is simply between failure and success.

At that point in the story, he was now the former-heir and thus owner of the vast Greystoke estate. But his “animal instincts” would not give him rest. The jungle lived in him – not the serene beauty we see from afar but the seeming chaos of nature we fail to comprehend and yet live daily with in the parallel concrete jungles of the cities.

And so in the end, Tarzan went back to his jungle.

Sometimes, we do need to go back to some places in our past – literally or mentally -- so we can truly appreciate how we were in relation to what we are now. In the process, we find great pleasure in what was and what has been. The fortunate few eventually learn to relish what is and what they have and then move forward to greater heights and fresher horizons.

Creating something new -- as opposed to remaining stagnant in the past or even in the present – takes quite a great amount of courage and wisdom. The challenge, however, remains. History and literature (oh, well, even Hollywood) have equipped us with sumptuous fare to whet our appetite for the greatest adventure we call life. Too often though, we just sit smugly in our comfort zones.

The childish and sometimes inane treatment of such classic stories as Tarzan and Hercules used to excite the kid in me no end. The action and the sense of adventure kept me awake at night and even during boring classes. It gives me great relief that some scriptwriters have matured enough in keeping with our desire for more meaningful entertainment.

Viewing this movie again on cable – while writing this article (this kind of multi-tasking can’t be done inside the movie-house) – proves the idea that we are at a stage in human history when opportunities for personal as well as collective learning and progress have advanced beyond measure. Yes, there will be setbacks like shipwrecks or natural calamities but human life will overcome destruction and corruption as long as we nurture the spirit within us all.


By creating something new every day of our lives, whether it be a work of art, an innovative enterprise, a renewed relationship, a fresh musical style or a new person in you with better habits.

I never thought Tarzan – the epitome of the innocently crude human character -- would come back to me at my age and make me think such sublime thoughts. That is something really new to me.

(Photo above: Musical stairs: A staircase seen from above seems like a stylized grand piano or a harp. The blacks and whites emphasize the illusion. Amazing! Taken by my son, Jon, in Vancouver, Canada.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Family of Nations, a Family of Free People

Before nations came into being, there was the tribe. And before tribes arose, there was the family. Like the family, the tribe had its patriarchs while the nation had its founders. Much of what nations do today owes its origins to the family. Thus, Abraham, the Father of Many Nations, taught us tribal dynamics while his descendant Moses gave us fundamentals on nationhood. From the Hebrews, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, we have gradually perfected the nation as standard for global organization.

Each nation as a sovereign state has its unique set of laws, beliefs, cultural heritage and rules of governance. In their diversity, nations compose a loosely-knit worldwide community often as tenuous as the tempestuous oceans that separate them and the winds that invariably invade their borders. Under one blue sky, nations – through the United Nations -- have learned to co-exist. Somehow, this gradual convergence has helped address problems a few nations alone cannot handle.

To some extent, nations have opted to surrender their own sovereignty to the UN during times of war to allow peace-keeping forces to settle violent conflicts, such as the Gulf War. This development can be both good and bad, depending on one’s perspective. It can be good in the global scheme of things for it preserves economic and social relations. Investments and trading can only flourish in times of peace. On the other hand, no self-respecting nation desires foreign intervention in its own affairs. But with the presence of self-proclaimed global police-states, nations have grudgingly accepted the realities of international dynamics. An age of a shaky balance between national sovereignty and global supervision has emerged.

Since ancient times, the family has existed autonomously within every society. Admittedly, even the family enjoyed a limited sovereignty with its pertinent rights and privileges granted upon its members by the norms and laws of the land. Only in rare cases were such rights waived in order to promote the greater good. In like manner, therefore, nations have simply carried on this accepted practice. Hence, military force – by its inherent persuasive power -- may be imposed upon a sovereign nation to quell violence or to prevent any overspill.

The question however arises: What right do nations have to come in and solve problems for an independent nation? Is it out of real concern or out of selfish motives?

Any individual who has special interests on a neighbor’s wealth would be motivated to interfere pretentiously. The founding of the UN was supposedly to establish an equitable and just settlement of international squabbles, arising as it did from the ruins of WWII. However, certain vested interests have served to put this august organization in doubt. Powerful nations have often used the UN to pursue less than altruistic motives.

The supreme ideal of a single family of nations based on the precedent ideal of the brotherhood of all human beings is the only solution to the spiraling conflicts among nations today. But who establishes the rules for this ideal? Is this not like the delicate and devious “religious” issue that traces back to the time of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael? Why should two brothers who share the same parent and the same heritage of prosperity now look at each other with grave suspicion? How could an ancient family problem still haunt us thousands of years after and not motivate us to face it wisely with brotherly affection? What religion are we talking about here when our own survival is at stake?

In the beginning, there was only the family: the divinely-conceived essential pattern of human relations that has not outlived its usefulness or its effectiveness. Only when people do away with this ideal that things go awry. Only when people choose something else in place of its efficient dynamic power that they realize that chaos results rather than progress. Only when people disregard the undeniable blood relations they have by virtue of their one family origin that they find out they are really destroying themselves.

Like Cain, nobody destroys the family and lives to savor the consequences. Like Hitler, nobody cuts the filial bond that exists among all people and rejoices in the alienation it creates. Like all colonizers, nobody built a nation today or in the past by the sweat and toil of foreign slaves and remains in control forever. The family is the first and last bastion of freedom. Unless we go back to its pristine promises, we will continue to drift in the wilderness.

At any level, the family gives and preserves life. Only a strong family of nations can assure us we can live peacefully together on this planet. Only a global family of free people will bring us a lasting environment of tolerance, cooperation and prosperity.

(Photo above: Kids cool off in the backyard beach. Tuazon family.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Three Levels of Belief

The truth. The false. And what we decide to believe in. We all fall generally within any of these three levels of faith. Life silently dictates that we reach out for the first, which actually requires attaining perfection or holiness, in the spiritual sense. At the same time, it tells us to consciously and totally avoid the second, a task we find almost beyond human effort or even human desire. Yet, it is in attaining that balance that we gain a fulfilled life. The best education one can have involves acquiring the fundamental tools for realizing this two-pronged human task.

We all know that those who live in ignorance or dwell in myths or with misconceptions do not endure in this world. For centuries the ancient Greeks and Romans established civilizations founded on many things we would laugh at today – their many gods and many “unscientific” conclusions about nature and even spirituality. And why not? Where have the glories of those people gone? If they had known the truth as we supposedly know it now to be, would they have survived?

Today, we have the glory. Who wouldn’t feel so much pride now drinking a hot, P100 Cappuccino in an air-conditioned room while typing on a laptop or punching on a P35,000 Nokia phone so far away from the uncertainties of those old, low-tech civilizations? Modern life has provided us with so much economic and emotional power – self-assurance, for good measure -- that we have taken for granted how much the ancient people struggled to dissect the truth from the false even in scientific terms. Reading the Great Books collection always gave me that grave feeling of how much people put up with, at least intellectually, to understand life.

Nevertheless, in the process of establishing foundational values in our institutions and our individual lives, we have ended up forming our own beliefs not so much different from what the ancient people believed and practiced. The many festivals or celebrations we have reinvented have really nothing new to show except for the technology we put into them. In the end, we have simply glamorized them and added our own peculiar way of keeping the hype fresh for the next generation to get interested in them and eventually inherit from us.

We have inherited a world built on the ruins of the impotent untruths and hypnotic fables not knowing that we have built a crystal palace of modern folly over the basic truths as well. We still sing the same songs not only because we relish the good memories (which is not bad) but also because we refuse to change our ways (which may be bad). When we can easily create new songs that herald our own new march into a more glorious tomorrow.

The truth has infinite power to fire up our passions for progress and honor. Ancient technology and architecture have had their time to inspire or create awe. What we feel now while looking at the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China is not much different from what we feel appreciating the new technological wonders. But the pyramids and the Great Wall serve no practical use other than as tourist attractions. History is after all something we only visit and not dwell in, to learn from and not to teach as the goal. But the skyscrapers, cruisers, the jet planes, the 3G cell phones, laptops and fuel-cell cars are things we use to make life the way we want to live it -- today, this moment. Yet, even these are mere tools for us to achieve something else. And what is that? Nothing but the truth.

So, are we living life in the midst of all the comfort and convenience while sacrificing or disregarding the truth? Have we reached that point when we can have all we want and not have to deal with the truth? The same truth that the ancients sought with the same eagerness that we seek wealth or health or fame? Hence, we have made for ourselves a civilization that allows us to claim our very own and not be beholden to any that came before us, whether in reality or in conception. That is, the inescapable truths that had impelled our forefathers to willingly give up sweat, tears and blood no longer matter in our overweening desire to amass security or material possessions. That in trying to gain those truths, we succeeded somehow but looked at them with a perplexed expression then turned around and got hold of that which is utterly false and made it appear to be the ultimate truth.

To be certain, the ancients also did what we have done. The Egyptians may have been not far from their idea of preparing for the after-life (at least, the rulers did so while keeping their privileged status), however, they did so while maintaining their selfish clutch upon wealth and power. Those titanic tombs were designed precisely to keep future generations from using their supposed eternal possessions.

And so, we merely follow the normal turn of human folly. No modern civilization has existed longer than any that existed before. Our fall may only be just around the corner. A pandemic may send shivers now but it could end up with, well, the end of us all.

Not with all the technology we have, some might say. We certainly hope not. We place our confidence on the historical certainty that humans and human life will survive. That the human spirit will overcome all trials. Right?

Not right. Even the best intentions of the human spirit cannot overcome the utter descent into untruth. The truth did not just happen. It serves an eternal purpose. And if it does, the eternal survival of the human spirit is at stake in any experimentation with what is false. Compromise with half-truths and “innocent’ lies dilutes the power of the pure truth.

All the human institutions and enterprises that have ever come to pass involved humans who were and who are at one time faced with the question of what is truth. A market vendor who sells a kilo of chicken meat does not merely do so in order to gain a profit and to feed a family. A call-center operator does not simply interact with a customer halfway across the globe in order to pay for a car. A government executive does not only lead his people to produce as much good as possible to the national economy. All of them have to deal with the basic questions of truth now and then. How they react to those issues determines how they deal with others. Each one affects the welfare of society or the nation at large. Every generation benefits or decays from what it receives from the previous one. But the world is made better by people who cherish the basic truths in life and establish their work, their family and business relations according to those truths.

Chaos is the absence of the light of truth. That is how the world began before it was born and that is how it is ending and how it will end. We may feel complacent – read that, smugly and drunkenly proud -- at what we have achieved for ourselves with all the tools we have invented. Yet the essential issue remains. Do we have the truth or have we merely held on to something which we have casually accepted or inherited as truth?

The question and the struggle remain. The truth still waits for us to answer its call for us to live at the highest level possible.
(Photo above: The road bends behind a hill to an unknown destination but we drive ever so confidently because the way has been prepared for us. It was taken in Sierra Madre, Tanay, Rizal.)