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.  

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The World Is Changing

I’ve not had the words for days now. I’m still so overwhelmed, letting it all sink in.

My friend Chi, all the way in Dubai, who reads my blogs regularly (“cracks the whip” is actually the more accurate description of what she does with me regarding this blog) demanded over Facebook last week: “Tweet Sering, where is this week’s?”

I promised I would upload a new one. But at that time, with the US election just days away, I couldn’t sit still long enough to organize my thoughts on my computer. I was too excited. And too scared, actually. What if—shudder--Obama doesn’t win? The idea was as horrific as Gotham City without Batman. Except with this, I couldn’t walk out of the darkness of the movie theatre afterwards—I’d still have to live in a world that was beginning to plunge ever deeper into hopelessness and chaos and darkness.

I’m still so buzzed. This has been an amazing week. My sister Jof, the new island girl (she’s now working in Boracay, lucky biyatch) texted me this the day after: “The world is changing! J I’m so excited. Obama rocks!”

Many people have wanted to “change the world”—and, in fact, many have been and still are changing the world. But the election to the highest office in the most powerful country in the world of an African American--the race that, only four decades ago, was fighting to rid itself of the last vestiges of slavery, was such a resounding, dramatic proof that the world is changing, that the human race is evolving--despite the wars and the poverty and the environmental degradation and the climate crisis that suggest otherwise. Yes, there is that. And it would be downright dangerous to even think that that part is getting better because it is, in fact, getting worse.

But what the Obama win showed was that the wars, the poverty, the environmental degradation and the climate crisis are not all that is left in the world. It’s not all hopelessness and cynicism and apathy. Obama’s triumph showed that there is still enough hope and passion and a sense of responsibility left; at least, that there are people who still have these in them enough to get him—the unlikeliest candidate, but the one with the strong message of hope and change—elected…by a landslide. There are still enough people fired up to, as Angelina Jolie put it, “roll up [their] sleeves and take on what [they] care about”. There are still a great number of people who, like John F. Kennedy, fervently believe that “our problems are man-made. Therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.”

All together now: “Yes, we can!” J

I’ve been camping in front of the TV, hungry for more news and analyses on the historic event because, as with some of the most profound experiences—as this one definitely was—I have been at a loss for words. So I’ve been letting other people’s words—the CNN, BBC, Bloomberg and Al-Jazeera anchors and political analysts (what, no Fox News? Hehe), the nytimes.com columnists, Oprah on her website, my friends from all around the world with their giddy e-mails and Facebook posts—wash over me. I just wanted to take it all in and sit with it. About the most articulate thing that came out of my mouth the past days was “AAAAHHHHHHHH!!!”


Which, thankfully for me (Chi, eto na!), paved the way for the above entry.


Some of the words from other people that I sat with the longest and savored the most:

“As he looked out Tuesday night through the bulletproof glass, in a park named for a Civil War general, he had to see the truth on people’s faces. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, he liked to say, but people were waiting for him, waiting for someone to finish what a King began.”– Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine, as quoted by Gayle King on Oprah.com

“I was sobered by his calmness when he came out. Because he didn’t walk out triumphant. He was humbled and steady.”--Oprah on Oprah.com

"The most important thing that Barack Obama brings to the presidency is his willingness to reason. He won his presidency not as a black American but as a reasoning American who happens to be black."--Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist, in TIME magazine

"Early-voting lines in Atlanta were 10 hours long, and still people waited, as though their vote was their most precious and personal possession at a moment when everything else seemed to be losing its value."--Nancy Gibbs, TIME magazine

“Hope has to keep winning.”--David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst on Oprah.com

"We felt we could have talked burgers--and places and books--with him all day. But you expect that of a politician, whose livelihood depends on winning hearts. The more remarkable thing, we both felt, was that this sparkling stranger was so much like the kind of people we meet in Paris, in Hong Kong, in the Middle East: difficult to place and connected to everywhere."--Pico Iyer, writing in TIME magazine about a chance encounter with then Sen. Barack Obama in Hawaii in late 2006, a week before the new President-elect joined the presidential race. Iyer was with traveler and writer Paul Theroux.

"Never will an American election have excited in the rest of the world a hope at once so crazy and so reasoned." -- Bernard-Henri Levy, French writer and philosopher in TIME magazine

"My brother is not supposed to accomplish even half of what he has. It's meant to be impossible. It makes you wonder. Is this some force at work, the dynamics of nature and life? Is it God? We divided the world after 9/11. And the world said no. And through my brother, we can all connect again." -- Malik Obama, Barack's Kenyan half-brother, TIME magazine

"I believe Mr. Obama exhibits many of the best characteristics of our species in terms of intelligence, sensitivity, resolve and a willingness to reason." -- Richard Leakey, Kenyan conservationist, TIME magazine

"Obama's election is not an event we can comprehend fully right now. It portends a shift whose magnitude will only be realized as my daughter's generation comes of age. But it will change, forever, our assumptions of who can become what in this world." -- Ellis Cose, Newsweek