Thursday, May 21, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About "Making A Difference"

Over the weekend, at a youth leadership forum in Misamis Oriental for “sustainable peace and development in Mindanao”--between being star-struck at meeting Governor Ed Panlilio of Pampanga, Governor Grace Padaca of Isabela, and Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga--I collected myself enough to give the following speech ;):

Good afternoon and thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today.

I was asked to speak on the topic of “Leaders in Readers” and that the group I am to address is comprised of student council leaders who have been tapped to contribute to the effort of achieving sustainable peace and development in Cagayan de Oro and in the rest of Mindanao.

As I’m sure you are aware, the vision you have set for yourselves is quite noble; the mission, ambitious. Lasting peace has always seemed elusive in this country, especially in Mindanao. And because peace has been slow to come, so has progress.

I'm also sure that the young participants here are raring to change all that. I'm sure you can't wait to make things different, to make things better. But before you go out there and seek to make your individual and collective contributions to this enormous task, let me share with you a few things I've learned about wanting to make a difference.

If it may sound like a deviation from the topic—and not what you had expected to hear--bear with me, as I feel called to share this with young idealists like you.

When I was about your age (not too long ago, I swear), I was impatient to start changing the world. I couldn’t wait to start doing the great things that I felt I was destined to do. The problem, though, was that I didn’t know where or how to begin. More importantly, I had not the faintest idea what those supposed “great things” were.

So I did the next big thing that a U.P. graduate could do: I got myself a job. I became a copywriter at a big advertising agency. It was a fun job. I was earning some money and not sponging on my parents, anymore, and I loved my funny, creative, irreverent officemates, most of whom were also from U.P. So my work just felt like an extension of my university days—except that I was getting paid to have fun. What a deal, diba?

Then in 1998, my father ran for Congress, representing our home province of Surigao del Norte. I was never a great fan of politics, so I fought that decision as hard and as loudly as I could until it was obvious that my father had made up his mind about running, hysterical eldest daughter notwithstanding. The rest of the family threw their support behind my father and so I finally decided that the mature thing was to go and do the same.

I took a two-month leave from work and, along with my four younger siblings, left for Surigao City to help my parents run the campaign. In the course of that campaign summer, however, I found myself becoming more involved than I had originally intended. I sat with mothers as they told me their wishes for their barangays—a school, more teachers, college scholarships for their children; nothing high falluting. I sat with smart, funny, energetic young girls who, I felt, could grow up to be amazing adults when given more opportunities to apply themselves. And at some point in the campaign, I began to think that politics may not be so horrible, after all, or government so irrelevant if it can help us fulfill all our wonderful plans for the province. I had just been to a visit to New Zealand some months before and was so impressed with that country’s efficient, robust eco-tourism industry. And I thought how wonderful it would be to adopt the same well-thought-out and highly evolved scheme to our province, which was already enjoying a fair amount of local and international visitors because of its world-class surf spots. What could be more ambitious, I thought, than adopting a First World eco-tourism structure to a very Third World province.

I became so excited at the thought of making a real difference in my home province, the place where I had grown up, that I was convinced this was my opportunity, finally, to do something great, something big and important. I decided that if my father won, I would quit my job and apply as his chief of staff or as his environment chief. I naturally—and naively--thought that my years as a member of the environmental group the U.P. Mountaineers was enough experience.

Then my father lost the elections. Of course, it was heartbreaking. But not as heartbreaking, not quite as devastating, as when those mothers I had spoken to and made great big plans with--many of whom were the leaders in their island barangays--came to the mainland with the intention of congratulating their new congressman, my father, whom they honestly thought had won as no news of the election results could reach their islands.

It was humbling to see the anguish on their faces. It was as if all hope for them had disappeared from the face of the earth. I had not fully realized the extent of their reliance on my father’s winning. While my family could pick up the pieces and carry on with our lives in Manila, the people from the province who supported and campaigned for us as if their lives depended on it were left with nothing but the faint echo of our promises. Aligning themselves with a politician, I realized with a sick feeling, had been the only way they knew to survive. Their lives really did depend on it.

I wanted to tell them that, really, all was not lost. It was just an election, for God’s sake. They still had themselves--their health, their imagination, their spirit. They were alive. I wanted to tell them, “Listen. You are still your own best hope.” But I didn’t know how to say it without sounding like a sheltered woman, a stupid burgis, who was out-of-touch with the realities around her. The more painful truth, however, was that I wasn’t sure I believed it myself.

I had never felt more useless in my life than I did that day, as I tried, along with my family, to comfort the weeping mothers. My education from some of the best of schools in the country could do nothing for them. I had never felt more powerless to do anything. I felt I had nothing real, nothing of value to offer them or anyone.

One of the lasting lessons for me from that experience is that while politics or the government can be a powerful, effective way of changing people’s lives for the better, it is, by no means, the only way. Mariane Pearl, journalist and author of the memoir A Mighty Heart, about the slaying by Islamic extremists of her husband, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, said that, “Personally, I believe there is a limitation to how much politics can change the world—but there’s no limitation to how much individuals can change the world.”

Personally—and especially after that sobering experience in Surigao--I couldn’t agree more.

Trouble was, this particular individual had no idea how she was going to change the world. It was this awareness of my cluelessness that haunted me when I returned to Manila and went back to my office desk and to my copywriting job. Nothing was the same, anymore. I didn’t feel I was the same person who left for Surigao two months ago. Everything that used to make me happy just felt hollow and meaningless. I felt hollow and meaningless, as though there was no real point to my existence. Writing ads for shampoos and conditioners and candies and underwear—something I really enjoyed before—began to feel to me like some kind of slow death.

I realized that I didn't love advertising enough, and that lack of love, that lack of passion for what I was doing showed in the mediocrity of my work. While my friends threw themselves at their work, investing it with attention and creativity and care—clearly doing something they love--I would grouse or growl at the sight of a new job order form on my desk. I would come to work late and leave early, had very long lunches, would go back to the office just to show my face, and then leave again for a very long coffee or tea break. I knew I was dragging my friends and my family down with my listlessness and boredom and sucking them into my black hole of misery—and it wasn't fair to them. I knew I had to leave. But where would I go? And what would I do? I didn’t know how to do anything except write and tell stories.

The faces of those mothers stayed with me. I badly wanted to help them, but how could I when I couldn’t even help myself? I couldn’t even figure out what it was that I wanted to do.

And so it was that, as I began to consciously figure out what it was that I really, truly wanted to do, I also naturally began to turn inward. I became more introspective and more reflective. I began to read more about the things that interested me, I wrote almost everyday in my journal about my observations, I asked the difficult questions. And because of all that, I became more aware of my thoughts, about my perceptions and my notions of things. In other words, I got to know myself a lot more.

I realized that, if I wasn’t so hell-bent on making a “contribution to society”--to do all the obviously important things like creating livelihood projects, building better schools, roads, etc.--what I really, truly wanted to do was to make films…and write books…and stage plays…and travel…and meet all sorts of interesting people. None of these pursuits sounded world-changing to me, none of them seemed to have any direct contribution to “nation-building”, but if I was truly honest with myself, those were the things I most wanted to do.

It was a lucky thing that among the many books I was then devouring was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. In it he said that “to realize one’s destiny”—to fulfill one’s biggest dreams—“is a person’s only real obligation”. You can imagine how liberating it was for me to read that.

So in July 1999, after a little over a year of intense introspection and reflection, of feeling more and more lost and out-of-place at client meetings, of more “meaning of life” discussions with my friends than they could tolerate, I finally tendered my resignation and left advertising. I vowed, from then on, to write only about the things I cared about.

For the next several years, I rabidly pursued my dreams: I made short films. I applied to NYU Film School twice—and was rejected as many times. I wrote screenplays. I entered all sorts of writing contests—winning some, and losing most. I wrote stage plays. I contributed articles to magazines. During those years, when my rent money would run out, I’d go and get a regular job, making sure that it was the kind that would enhance my skills as a writer or as a filmmaker. Whenever I had saved up enough money to sustain me for a few months while I wrote or took short classes and workshops or made a short film, I’d quit my regular job and focus on what I regarded as my real work, my soul work.

In 2004, my first novel was published. Many young women tracked me down on the Internet to say “thank you” and to detail how much the book “changed their life”. I was shocked and delirious when I made the connection--when I realized that by simply doing what I most loved to do, I was making my own contribution to the world. That by making my life better, I was inevitably making other people's lives better. I was amazed to realize that “making a difference” can be as simple as figuring out what you are most passionate about and then going out and following that passion.

Of course, there's nothing really “simple” about that. You run up against all sorts of personal issues, all sorts of fears that you never even thought you had. Am I talented enough, smart enough, attractive enough for the profession I want to pursue? What if I go do what I love—and fail? It's scary, it's risky—and that's why many people don't do it. Po Bronson, author of the book What Should I Do With My Life? (The True Story of People Who Asked the Ultimate Question) writes that, “Finding out what we believe in and what we can do about it is one of life's great dramas. It can be an endless process of discovery and one that should be appreciated for its difficulty. Don't cheat. Treat this as the one true life you have.”

It is what we achieve in our personal lives that we bring to the table. It is the lessons we've learned in our own lives that we offer as solutions to the larger problems in our community because it's what we know. It's saying, “How about we try this? It worked for me and, who knows, it might just work for you.” We cannot offer solutions we don't know, we cannot offer solutions we've not tested ourselves and proved to be effective. Otherwise, it's all just rhetoric. We have to first practice in our own lives what we want to preach. Our lives and the way we live it are the most persuasive argument for what we believe.

I've come to know that showing others what’s possible, by the example of our own lives, is the most effective way to lead.

Before President Barack Obama was catapulted into the position he is now in—as an inspirational leader to an America that is experiencing its worst economic crisis and a world that is going through unprecedented challenges--he was a young man with a lot of questions about his identity. He didn't look like his classmates in the school he attended in Indonesia nor did he look like his Indonesian stepfather, neither did he look like his white mother and the white grandparents who raised him. According to a Newsweek article, Obama was “an undistinguished student, distracted by the diverse ethnic and ideological impulses that muddled his mind. As a teenager, he resorted to cigarettes, drink, pot, blues and basketball. His salvation was in books, a world of ideas where the young Obama could explore his conflicts about race and identity, service and selfishness, without fear of reprisal. At Columbia University, this obsessive reading became a monkish habit. Steeped in the works of Nietzsche, Saint Augustine, Lincoln and Graham Greene, Obama forged conclusions in solitude, sometimes shunning human contact for days.”

It is the conclusions he forged in solitude that he applied to his work as community organizer in Chicago's tough and unglamorous South Side. It is here in this neighborhood that he “perfected the skill he'd learned alone in his room: creating unity from diversity. He could urge parties who disagreed on almost everything to agree on coherent action. And so he found his vocation. Ten years later, armed with a degree from Harvard Law School, Obama had made unity his particular specialty. Now an undivided self, he could use his narrative to bring other people together.”

Reading about the lives of the people I most admire, like President Obama, has validated and strengthened one of the most, if not the most, important lessons I've learned: that all meaningful work out there, begins in here. That “all meaningful change in the world begins in the individual life”. That whatever we wish to see out there—whether it is peace or progress or security or all of that—we should first be able to see within ourselves, within our own lives.

Our work begins with finding out who we are. We have to recognize our own potential in order for us to fulfill that potential. No one will do that for us.

We have to keep educating ourselves and developing our own skills and talents. We have to keep evolving and growing as individuals. Inevitably, as others become curious about what it is we're doing right, our circle of influence expands so that we are able to positively affect more and more people. Our personal power—the power that drives our life from within—expands from ourselves, to our family and personal relationships, to our community, to the larger community of our country, and to the even larger community of the world. When we are authentically empowered, we can't help but empower others.

Over the years, as I've paid more attention to my life and to the world around me, I've noticed that there are six things that help people develop and empower themselves:

1. Reading…anything and everything that interests you. As the writer Joyce Carol Oates said, “Be guided by instinct and not
design.” Don't discriminate among reading materials. “Anything that gets people to read is worthwhile”, wrote author Po
2. Writing…regularly in a journal, as well writing letters to friends and family. It helps clarify and organize your thoughts and
keeps you in touch with what you're thinking and feeling. It helps you become more self-aware.
3. Traveling…within and outside your country. It develops tolerance, a love and appreciation for diversity. It broadens both
your mind and your heart. It literally expands your horizons.
4. Volunteering…to causes you personally believe in and not just to what's popular. It keeps you in touch with the generous,
big-hearted part of yourself. Give of your time, your understanding, your energy, your attention, your money.
5. Questioning…everything. Anita Roddick, social and environmental activist and founder of The Body Shop said, “Re-
examine all you have been told. DISMISS what insults your soul.”
6. Exercising…regularly. The Buddha said, “To keep the body active and in good health is a duty. Otherwise, we will not be
able to keep the mind strong and clear.”

I'll wrap up this talk with a wish that each of you will strive to be all that you were meant to be. Because that, I firmly believe, is your best gift to the world. Thank you. :)


painted1981 said...

and applause... =) happy b day astigirl ;)

Teta said...

Awesome! I think impressionable minds ought to be exposed to this brand of how-to-change-the-world vs the be-selfless-because-changing-the-world-requires-heroic-and-grand-gestures-of-self-sacrifice kind. That's why The Fountainhead will always be at the top of my list of all-time favorite books.

BTW, happy birthday!


Lami said...

*Bow* Thank you, Mimi-girl! ;)

Lami said...

Thank you, Teta! ;)

Oh, and they were a lovely bunch--very curious and engaged and idealistic and energetic. Were we ever like that? ;)

Ganu'n ba ang chika ng The Fountainhead? Dinidedma ko lang 'yun sa bahay, ah (coz it was such a thick book, mehn ;)) Mabasa nga...

BTW, thanks--the bday was fun ;)

Anonymous said...

Now, that's Tweet talking :) Sorry, missed greeting you on your birthday. Hope you had a happy celebration :) Keep in touch Tweet.
Take care..all our love, Ken,Brinna, Kay,Katie and Ben