Friday, May 8, 2009

Boxing People

A few days after Manny Pacquiao knocked Ricky Hatton out cold, I found myself in a fiery discussion with my grandmother and my dad about Pacquaio’s political plans. As with many Filipinos, my dad and my grandmother were of the view that Pacquaio had no business entering politics. My dad: “He should know his limitations.” My grandmother: “He’s just a boxer.”

My response to my dad: “Maybe he does. And boxing or politics is not it.”

My response to my grandmother: “So you’re belittling boxing…and boxers.”

It didn’t end there, of course. A back-and-forth ensued—me versus my dad and grandmother—and quickly heated up. Pretty soon, the discussion degenerated into our taking a swipe at one another.

Me to my dad: “Of course, you’d think you know Pacquaio’s limitations more than he does. That’s all you see in people—their limitations, not their potential. Because all you see in yourself are your limitations and not your potential.”

My dad to me: “And you don’t know your limitations. If I didn’t tell you that your nose is crooked, you won’t know that your nose is crooked.”

A week rebuttal, I know. But this was all done in exaggerated, talo-ang-pikon, half-kidding fashion, so we each dangled what we thought were the sharpest--if illogical and baseless--hooks out there and tried not to take the other’s bait. It was trash-talking Floyd Mayweather-style.

Me to my grandmother: “Oh, that’s such old-school thinking—that people can only be and do one thing. Expand your mind, Mrs. Tiukinhoy.”

My grandmother to me: (Glaring) “It’s useless talking to you because you don’t listen. You think you know better.” Later, when my dad had walked off and left the two of us at the kitchen table, my grandmother peered at something on my face. “Why did he say your nose is crooked? It’s not.”


For the sake of argument-- because, really, it’s not as if we have any real bearing on Pacquaio’s decisions—let me just say that I don’t think anyone is in a better position than Pacquaio to know, with certainty, what he’s capable of and what his limitations are. I find it arrogant and presumptuous and self-delusional, this idea that someone other than Pacquaio can know for sure all that he can actually be.

Whether people are putting him down (as my grandmother did—she’s so not a fan) or putting him on a pedestal (calling him a “national treasure”, a “national hero”, the “best boxer that ever lived”), they are still putting him in a box, each trying to define him according to an easily recognizable mold. Either way, it is essentially saying the same thing: “This is all you can do, so stay there” or “That is what you are. So be that and that alone.” The terms “authentic, living hero” and “unifying force”—which a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial gave him—no matter how flattering and ego-inflating, are still no more than a trap, a constriction of his full potential as an individual, if these seek to keep him where people are used to seeing him—in the boxing ring—and discourage him from following the other things that call to him, like politics.

I remember having a similar argument years ago—with about the same degree of passion—with a friend about Richard Gomez. (Uh-huh.) Gomez had just been appointed to a government post in sports and my friend carried on about the former’s not knowing his place, about his “overreaching”. My friend wondered derisively why the guy just can’t stick to movies and acting and stop trying to be some kind of Renaissance Man—kayaking, fencing, directing and now holding a government post.

I found that statement more revealing of my friend’s state of mind and world view than it was of Gomez’ supposedly overweening ambitions—and I told my friend so. Which, of course, led to a “why are you defending him?” kind of discussion. But as I said then, it wasn’t about my “defending” Richard Gomez. Nor was it about my later on “defending” Ethan Hawke when he published his novel The Hottest State, of which I have a copy and which I found to be a terrific read—subtle, sensitively-observed, honest—but which, of course, some people derided as Hawke’s delusion by trying to be something he’s not. And most of these people have not even read his book. (How dare he think he can be a novelist, too, besides being an actor?) Or Angelina Jolie when she became an active crusader for refugees aside from being an Oscar-winning actress, a blockbuster action heroine, a pilot and mother.

It was, rather, about my defending—and making a strong case—of my personal world view: that you simply cannot box people in. That you cannot slap a label on them and expect them to act according to that label. People are too complex—and every single person’s potential, boundless—to be narrowed down to one thing or to be pinned down to a cliché. Richard Gomez, Ethan Hawke, Angelina Jolie—and most, recently—Manny Pacquaio, were simply Exhibit A, B, C, D in those conversations. They were merely the strong evidence and examples of what I mean; they were not the main issue.

For me, there are so many more such examples of people who do not easily conform to a clear, recognizable mold: the bestselling (and astoundingly eloquent, elegant) author who also happens to be the current US President--Barack Obama. The teacher with no business degree who went on to create The Body Shop, one of the most successful global businesses--Anita Roddick. The immigrant bodybuilder, actor, Republican Governor who married a Kennedy and is also his party’s “most powerful voice for green living”--Arnold Schwarzenegger. The high-profile member of the Kennedy clan whom people have been urging to run for office but who chose to be a journalist and is now an author and one of the most outspoken supporters of Barack Obama but who is married to a Republican Governor who supported John McCain--Maria Shriver. The playwright who became the president of the Czech Republic--Vaclav Havel; the Mexican TV soap star who didn’t speak English but became a Hollywood director, producer and Oscar-nominated actress--Salma Hayek.

I can go on and on, get the picture. I hope.

My world view has strengthened over the years as I’ve seen and experienced the evidence for it countless times—in other people’s lives as well as in my own. People still continue to surprise me, even the ones I’ve known for a long, long time. And I continue to surprise myself, even when I begin to think I’ve seen everything there is to see about me.

I’m not a fan of boxing—never have been. There’s something I find quite barbaric, even if it’s done under certain rules, about trying to punch each other on the head as hard as you can—and getting paid for it. I’m no great fan of Richard Gomez or Ethan Hawke, either, even as I am one of the biggest admirers of Angelina Jolie ☺. But I am in awe of strong individuals—people who defy labels, who refuse to stay put in one place, who continue to discover and learn and grow, and frustrate those who try to pin them down. And the story of Manny Pacquaio is looking to me like a story of an individual who is becoming stronger and stronger, someone who is becoming more and more authentic to himself.

There is something I find quite riveting about Manny Pacquaio’s journey, especially with the news, shortly after his stunningly decisive win over Hatton, of his intention to join politics. People may interpret it however they want, but for me, it is about a person finding out that the boxing ring--no matter how much fame, fortune, titles and adulation it has brought him—is not big enough. It is about an individual who still needs to discover all that he’s made of.

If the news is true, I suspect that’s what’s driving Pacquaio out of the comfort zone of the ring, the hero-status, the adulation and into the uncharted territory of politics—he has to test himself in other ways as he probably hasn’t yet seen his true strength, awesome as his power may already appear to the world. He hasn’t yet experienced his full capacity as an individual. Besides, if Pacquiao approaches politics the way he boxes—that is, by using his mind (“planning, preparing and executing”) and his heart—I think he just might surprise the naysayers, yet again. I do think his desire and capacity to learn (which requires curiosity and humility—two things that seem to be glaringly absent in an overwhelming number of so-called public servants)—as evidenced by his adoption of a new boxing style—will serve him well.

It takes guts to step off that familiar, comfortable pedestal and discover what else you’re made of. (Think of John Lennon leaving the “more popular than Jesus Christ” Beatles to free himself to discover other talents and other passions he may be harboring). Many people simply aren’t able to muster that guts—which is why the very few who do, stand out, become great and, in so doing, inspire others. By their example, they show the rest of us what’s possible.

Whether Manny Pacquaio reaches greater heights in politics or crashes and burns is not my concern. The point here is that he is not allowing the very real possibility of the latter—that he may turn out to be a complete disgrace—to kill the equally real possibility of the former—that he just may turn out to be a great public servant. (Because the truth is that, as with anyone else, he can really go either way). At least, give that to the guy. Most people let their fear of the unknown stop them from straying outside their familiar surroundings and into new territory.

I say go for it, Manny. And I wish you well.

Because it’s tough out there…you know. ☺

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