Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do the Write Thing

Except for Conrado de Quiros, I usually am not able to muster the patience to read the local papers. So I took it as a weird sign that, as I was moving my parents’ Philippine Daily Inquirer out of my way on the breakfast table this morning, something on the front page actually caught my attention.

It was a call by Juan V. Sarmiento Jr. to readers to “let us know the measures you are taking to get you through the rough times. If we are together, we can tough it out. Send suggestions to jsarmiento@inquirer.com.ph”.

Oh, Juan V. Sarmiento Jr., are you sure you want to hear from me?

I’ve been down with the flu the past couple of days and everything—even reading a travel book in bed—felt like work. So I had two-days’ worth of pent up energy that was unleashed when I began hacking away at a letter to Mr. Sarmiento—putting forth the “measure” I am taking in these “rough times.”

This is how it came out (and I’m uploading it here in case Mr. Sarmiento feels I was just mouthing off in flu-induced delirium and decides to chuck out my letter):

Hello, Juan.

I am writing in response to your call for “measures you are taking to get you through the rough times.” My suggestion is not exactly what one might call “practical”—or one that yields instant, dramatic “voila!” results--but it’s always been the most effective tool in my arsenal—the one thing that has pulled me out of rough periods and one I strongly believe will help others: writing.

Allow me to expound.

The “rough times” that we are going through is, I believe, a direct and natural consequence of people’s relying too much on institutional or group thinking and not enough on individual thinking. It’s the result of our putting too much (blind) faith on institutions—the government, the financial institutions, the church, schools, and yes, even the family—and not enough faith on ourselves, forgetting that institutions are, in fact, made up of individuals. And that these institutions are only as strong, healthy and effective as the individuals that comprise them. 

Our ideas of what is “right” and “wrong” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable” come from what the institutions pronounce as “right” or “wrong”, “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. We’ve stopped questioning why things are a certain way and have lazily accepted many things as they are.

I think because of that, we’ve lost—or, at least, have been severed from—our ability to think for ourselves. We lack that honest, abiding and necessary trust in ourselves—in our instincts, in our intuition and in our capacity for critical thinking—that makes someone like Warren Buffett, second richest man in the world, when asked who he turns to for advice, quip, “Usually, I look in the mirror.”

No, we look too much outside—on what everybody else says is “right” or “true”--and not enough inside ourselves. Thus, the homogenized thinking that we have now, everybody thinking—or not thinking--the same thing. For instance, rather than encouraging one another to find and then follow our passion, we scramble, like a herd of sheep, towards the “lucrative” jobs/industries at the moment: nursing and working for call centers. This is not to say that there aren’t people who genuinely feel that their calling is in the nursing or call center profession, but I find it such a grave disservice to our young people that we push them to go for the “sure thing”, the quick buck, the instant gratification, discouraging them from taking risks, from experimenting, from making and then learning from their mistakes. And so we are producing a generation of cookie cutter people—people who think and act and do the same thing and tread the same safe path not unlike first-generation robots—and not real individuals with their own unique gifts and views and opinions and strengths.  

It’s a cynical, desperate way of being—one that completely disregards some of the best attributes about being human: our imagination, our creativity and ingenuity, our passion, our faith, our hope, our will. 

Our institutions have failed—our government and our financial institutions, in the most dramatic, resounding way—because the individuals within it have failed. We’ve failed by allowing our institutions to define us instead of us defining our institutions. We’ve failed by allowing our government to say what kind of country—and what kind of life we are to have in this country--rather than us demanding what kind of government we deserve. By allowing our religions to define what faith means instead of us bringing our own personal experiences, our own judgment to the table and defining our faith, and thus, our religions. By allowing the institution of marriage and family—and the way many others live it—to shape our idea of them instead of allowing our own personalities, our own history, our own sensibilities, our own aspirations to define what sort of union with another person and community we are going to have.

In short, our institutions, our society, have not evolved—have imploded--because its most basic unit, the individual, has not evolved. Our present collective consciousness—Filipinos lacking a healthy self-esteem, being content with mediocrity and “pwede na”, living in desperation and cynicism, taking only for themselves because of a belief in lack and the thinking that “there’s not enough to go around”, hailing as noble the subservient “pasan-ko-ang-daigdig” mentality, scarcely allowing themselves to hope for great things–is only a reflection of the individual consciousness.

Our circumstances will only change if we ourselves change. The “rough times” will not get better unless we get better. It’s very easy to blame outside forces—the government, the financial sector, the rich people, the poor people, our culture, our religion, our bosses, our families, our partners, etc.—for everything that’s wrong or not working well in our lives, and that is why we do it. It’s easy. But we can no longer afford to go down the easy road. The present times urgently call for us to do the difficult thing: to start taking personal responsibility and accountability, beginning with asking ourselves the tough questions and then finding our own answers. In short, we need to work on ourselves. As the Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote, “What we achieve inwardly changes outer reality.”

How do we begin to strive for that inward achievement?

The answers to that are as varied and unique as there are people in the world. For me, the answer has been…to write. And to write as honestly and as reasonably as I possibly can. 

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” So as much as I’d like to draw up more effective and progressive economic policies that don’t favor the very rich in this country too much—which has really caused the severe economic imbalance—or to institutionalize personal finance literacy classes into every high school and college curriculum, I’m simply not equipped to do that. It’s not what I do—at least, not at the moment.

I can, however, be honest and open about my struggle to find out what I believe, what I most value and how I've been trying to live from that knowledge in order to be a more authentic and useful member of every community I belong to and to the larger society.

What I’ve learned from being a professional writer for the last thirteen years--and a journal- or diary-writer for the past twenty-five—is that when you write or practice an art form (or do something that you truly enjoy on a regular basis) it is very difficult to remain a cynic. It is very difficult to continue thinking “That’s impossible” or “I can’t do that” or “It can never be done”. Because you’ll discover so much about yourself—the unflattering, sure, but also the many stellar attributes you do possess, not least of which are the utter belief and trust in those stellar attributes.

It’s taken me a while to figure out why I write (I’ve learned that not knowing why, but just having a feeling for something and doing it is an early step in the creative process), but now I can say this: I write because it puts me in touch with the best part of me. It connects me to the joyful, the imaginative, the hopeful, the bold, the brave, the strong parts of me. It helps me find surprisingly real and effective solutions to my problems that I wouldn’t otherwise have if I was running around in panic or asking a lot of people for their advice. During those solitary writing times, I can’t help but think that anything is possible and that I can summon the will, the strength and the fortitude to make it happen.

I write to remind myself of what I’ve learned the hard way: that we are not victims of our circumstances, that our lives are not meant to merely be imposed upon us, without our consent. Rather, our circumstances are there for us to rise above. They are there to take into our hands and to mold into the kind of life we envision for ourselves. I write with the hope that those reading my writings will want to choose to learn their lessons—because the hard-fought ones are the ones that stay with us and which we value the most. They’re the ones that shape our character. And character, as we’ve been told, is destiny.

Not everyone is meant to be a novelist or some other kind of professional writer, but I do believe that everyone is meant, as Po Bronson wrote in his book What Should I Do With My Life? (True Stories of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question) to find out “what we believe in and what we can do about it.”

Writing regularly in a journal, I’ve found, is one of the cheapest, most no-frills tool to do this. It is, as I’ve read somewhere, “one of the cheapest forms of therapy.” I believe in its ability to bring out the truth in us so much (remember, the thing that sets us free? From our fear, from our panic, from our cynicism and pessimism…)—as I’ve seen it work in my life in terms of keeping my sanity, my calm and optimism in tact, no matter what—that I’ve made it my job (in a word, nangareer) to encourage people to take up the practice.

Aside from my own blog (where I basically let it all hang), I’ve set up a blog (www.ts-writingcoach.blogspot.com) that will guide the shy, inhibited or “walang budget” ones on their own writing projects, beginning with the personal essay.

But lest anyone--including myself--begins thinking this is purely altruistic, let me be honest here: it is also incredibly selfish—yes, that inherent trait of an individual, the one that our religions have all but demonized and what everybody advised us against being when we say we want to do something that makes us happy. “Don’t be selfish”--to our desire to make films instead of going to law school. “Don’t be selfish”--to our wanting to write or paint or experiment with our own restaurant instead of working for a multinational company. Well, selfishness is part of what drove me to do this—I wanted to do something that made me feel productive and useful, in my own terms. I wanted to do work that reflects who I am, that matters to me. One cannot afford to be genuinely altruistic—or authentically selfless—unless they first have a healthy self, to begin with—one that they nurture and protect; unless they are first, in other words, selfish. We cannot be a strong, healthy society—and we aren’t, that’s why we’re still in the Third World--unless we encourage everyone to be strong, healthy individuals. 

In these rough, chaotic times, the solution I propose isn’t “practical”—as we’ve come to view things that yield instant, dramatic “voila” results. But it will help us recover the most valuable things we’ve lost--our imagination, our creativity and ingenuity, our sense of independence and sense of community, our passion, our joy, our hope in ourselves and in others--in our pursuit of the things we don’t really need so much of—money and all things material, the good opinion of other people. It will help us recover all the things, in other words, that will pull us out of the dark.

It all begins with sitting still, taking stock of our situation, and developing some much-needed self-awareness. So pick up pen and paper (or open laptop or switch on desk top) and start doing the write thing.  


miko said...

hi! hey i was reading your lastest post. good one. thought id post something that struck me recently as i was looking for a way top overcome procrastination and patterns (bad habits) ive learned from the herd. its a call to "men" to consider the ant and put down "homogenized thinking" and and thus to be leaders (radical individuals) in the home http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=1ad3735c98990221d93a

and by the way this is so true "It’s a cynical, desperate way of being—one that completely disregards some of the best attributes about being human: our imagination, our creativity and ingenuity, our passion, our faith, our hope, our will. "

on institutions: hehe youre sounding like a vit like an anarchist though :-). had to JOKE about that. dada.

thi sounds good - personal finance literacy classes

Lami said...

Anarchist...hmm...I'm beginning to like the sound of that...;)

Thanks for dropping by, Miks ;). Will check out the youtube thing ;)